Are Work Emails Adding to Your Exhaustion?

One of the more interesting things I read in the past year was in the book, The Happiness Equation, by Neil Pasricha. Neil tells a story about working for a powerful and well-respected CEO who never replied to his emails. When Pasricha finally worked up the courage to ask the CEO why, he was told:

“Neil, there’s a problem with email. After you send one, the responsibility of it goes away from you and becomes the responsibility of the other person. It’s a hot potato. An email is work given to you by somebody else.”

I remember that last line every time I check my email at work:

An email is work given to you by somebody else.

Take a look at your last ten work emails and see if it’s true. Here are my five most recent:

1. A parent wanting more information about a playground incident her son reported.
2. An office request that I send a Remind message to parents about the upcoming school carnival.
3. An email informing teachers that the office has two fundraiser packets without names on them and requesting that we try to identify the students based on the names on the order forms.
4. A parent asking how her son did in class today.
5. A reminder about schedule changes due to the third graders’ concert rehearsal.

Four of the five require something of me, and that can lead to exhaustion.

How?

As I write about in my book, Exhausted, each day we wake up with a full tank of willpower. As we exercise self-control and make decisions, that willpower is depleted, and along with it, our glucose levels. Additionally, high-intensity emotions like anger and negative thoughts like worry also drain us of energy. Each time you check your email, you risk the very strong likelihood that one of the following will happen:

1. You read something that requires action, and you know you already have too much to do and not enough time to do it. This stresses you out. Stress fatigues the body.

2. You read something that upsets or annoys you, and must then use willpower to not swear or slam your fist down or fire off a strongly-worded rebuttal. Using this kind of self-regulation burns glucose, one of our major sources of energy.

3. You read something that requires you to make a decision, and making decisions depletes your willpower.

Each of the above uses up some of the limited energy you have in a day. Combined with all the other times teachers use willpower, make decisions, regulate their emotions, and experience anxiety, emails can contribute to your exhaustion.

So what do you do?

Check your email less often. I used to carry my phone around in my pocket and check it 20 times a day in the classroom. If I saw the notification light blinking, I’d check to see what it was and I’d read every email that arrived within minutes. I took pride in always knowing what was going on, of being on top of things.

But now I only check it three times a day. Knowing that each email is likely to lead to stress, the need to self-regulate, or require a decision from me, I seek to minimize the damage to my energy levels while I still have to get through most of my teaching day.

I check email once before school, once during lunch, and once before students leave (in case a parent is relaying an end-of-day message about where their kid needs to go after school). Then, when school is over, I go through and read those emails I delayed action on and delete any I don’t need to keep.

I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort is starting this summer, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to receive a reminder email to sign up for Early Bird Access on June 8.

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