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Holy Everything: Imagine more ease in your handling of email

July 15, 2018 GMT

The use of email as a primary tool for communicating has dramatically shifted norms and expectations in the workplace.

The technology that paved the way for our modern email platforms began in the mid-1960s and steadily developed throughout the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, most people no longer referred to these digital communications as “electronic mail” and instead shifted to calling them “email.” The majority of American workplaces had computers and email capacity by the year 2000.

These days, email is everywhere. It is estimated that there are about 5 billion active email accounts in existence. The average employee spends somewhere around four hours of each eight-hour workday responding to email, and our inbox time isn’t limited to our jobs! Many of us also maintain personal email accounts.

Yet even as the use of email has risen, most of us haven’t ever had any training in how to use it most impactfully! “Electronic overwhelm” is a common occurrence for many. We wonder: How do we prioritize the contents of our inboxes? How much time should we spend on it each day? How can we electronically express our feelings without being misunderstood?

Thankfully, overwhelm isn’t the only possible way to deal with email. We can also try mindfulness.

Mindfulness is an approach to life that is rooted in an awareness of the present moment. Here are a few suggestions for how to embrace a mindful approach to email.

• Breathe. Start your workday with your breath. Before you type in the password to log into your inbox, sit at your desk with both shoes touching the floor. Breathe in and out slowly and consciously. Feel the air tickling your nose hairs.

If you pray, this would be a great moment to pray for guidance for the day ahead. Consider setting an intention for how you’d like to feel as you spend time in your inbox that day. Return to your breath and then log in.

The whole exercise could last as little as a minute, but a single minute spent wisely can set the mood for the day.

• Practice gratitude. Sometimes when I’m digging out from an email avalanche at work, I notice that I begin to feel a little bitter. I think, “Ufff! I didn’t get into this job because I wanted to spend all this time on email! I want to be talking to actual people and doing meaningful work.”

But what if email is part of meaningful work? What if email can be a tool for building stronger workplaces and relationships? It’s useful to stop now and then and think of reasons why email is a source of thankfulness. It connects us easily to others. It can be archived easily. It can be a quick way to convey information. What aspects of email do you find gratitude-worthy?

• Responding vs. reacting. An effective way to start despising your email account is by getting into a pattern of reacting instead of responding. When you read an email that brings up feelings of any kind for you, that’s a good moment to pause and tune into the feeling.

Before writing another word, just stop and listen to the feeling. Has reading the email brought up feelings of defensiveness? Anger? Bliss? Confusion? Notice that it’s not so much the content of the email that’s creating the emotions. Instead, it’s you reacting to the email’s contents.

As often as possible in life (whether digitally or in person), we want to avoid communicating out of a place of reactivity. Instead, we want to first process our feelings so we can witness reality more clearly. We can then respond in a more intentional, thoughtful way.

Email reactivity often leads to a long chain of passive-aggressive correspondence with all kinds of inappropriate cc-ing and bcc-ing. We’ve all been there; it’s not pleasant.

• Take breaks and be intentional. Email is a great tool and a bad boss. Instead of fixating on cleaning out your email and keeping zero new messages in your inbox at all times, try creating more spaciousness. What might it look like to carve out a couple blocks a day to respond and craft emails and have it off the rest of the day? In some cases that may not be practical but in others, it may work.

Remember that email doesn’t need to feel like an endless marathon. Take breaks. Stay hydrated. Balance responding to emails with the rest of your vocational priorities.

Technology will certainly continue to develop and more streamlined electronic communications approaches are certainly on the horizon. But for the foreseeable future, the use of email in the workplace isn’t going anywhere. With a mindful approach, email can remain a fruitful, meaningful way of communicating.