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Before there was Zoom, there was e-mail. Both connect us – marvels of our age. But both make us miserable. Lately the focus has been on Zoom, the fatigue it creates, with its never-ending calls for our attention. But e-mail is also never-ending, and in The New Yorker Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, shares research showing it’s making us miserable.

One study found the longer one spends on e-mail in a given hour, the higher one’s stress for that hour is. A look at Swedish workers found the need to be continuously connected was associated with suboptimal health outcomes.

Prof. Newport stresses that some of the suggested solutions backfire. For example, we are told to batch e-mails – tackle them at one or two times during the day. But people who scored highly in the trait of neuroticism were more stressed when batching e-mails, perhaps because of worry about all of the urgent messages they were ignoring.

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That points to connections. It’s not just an e-mail. It’s a connection to a colleague – a relationship. And with relationships can come guilt.

One recommendation that Prof. Newport offers is to avoid the tension that will build on vacation over the e-mails growing in your inbox: use the Thrive Away app that advises the sender you are on vacation and their e-mail is being automatically deleted. If the e-mail is important, they can resend it on your return, which may test the relationship but helps your sanity. Prof. Newport notes that a regular auto-responder with a similar message will not work as well, your anxiety still growing as you know e-mails are collecting even if you are saying you won’t peek. You need the finality of an app that deletes.

Many of the solutions to e-mail misery require organizational will and are beyond an individual. But one organizational solution he mentions – fewer e-mails – can occur if you slow down your response times. “I’ve noticed that if I respond to people’s e-mails quickly, they send me more e-mails,” programmer James Somers writes in a blog post on working quickly. “The sender learns to expect a response, and that expectation spurs them to write. That is, speed itself draws e-mails out of them, because the projected cost of the exchange in their mind is low. They know they’ll get something for their effort. It’ll happen so fast they can already taste it.”

So maybe judiciously slowing down should be considered, although that does resemble batching e-mails with its associated anxiety. Executive coach Erica Dhawan also wants us to slow down – not to reduce the pace of e-mails but to reduce the confusion and misunderstandings. She is concerned about how frantic we are when writing e-mails – trying quickly to assimilate information, faced with the fact that we comprehend less when we read on a screen than we do when we read print. “We devote less time to reading something in full, and tend to skim and search for key take-aways. And when it’s our turn to reply to a message, we feel so burdened by the volume of e-mails we have to write that we end up sending sloppy, terse, or confusing responses,” she notes in Harvard Business Review. We’re miserable and so is our correspondent.

One remedy – which goes against today’s prevailing practice – is to make sure your e-mail isn’t too brief. We seek brevity as we theoretically spend less time on the e-mail and so does the recipient. Our mobile phones also encourage e-mail brevity. But we have brushed over details that can be critical. We become careless and slapdash. So slow down, and make sure you include relevant details. It will reduce misery.

“Brevity can make a person appear important, but it can also hurt your team and your business. Getting a slapdash e-mail means that the recipient has to spend time deciphering what it means, causing delays and potentially leading to costly mistakes,” she warns.

Quick hits

  • You can improve your pep talks to yourself by switching from the first person to third person, advises psychology professor Dan Ariely. Instead of telling yourself, “I’ve got this,” try, if for example Julia is your name, “Julia’s got this.” It makes it seem more like enthusiastic support from a friend and despite seeming minor can help you.
  • To get your point across better in video meetings – and avoid Zoom fatigue – public speaking coach Nick Morgan recommends “beat gestures,” which emphasize certain syllables of words through a movement of the hands to improve comprehension.
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day, says Atomic Habits author James Clear, but at least they were laying bricks every hour. You don’t have to do it all today – just lay a brick.
  • Marketing consultant Karen Wolfe keeps a notepad by her bed to write down ideas racing through her head at bedtime – even if she scribbles in the dark and can’t always read the item next morning. But getting it from head to paper allows sleep.
  • Keep in mind that when an executive recruiter contacts you they are also in touch with other candidates – it’s not just about you, says recruiter Mary Despe. Many will take the time to prepare you for the hiring process. Be open to the guidance and feedback they give about the job search.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

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