How to battle email burnout: Expert advice from email-efficient CEOs

Ever heard of grim5next? Didn’t think so.

I’d always dreamed about being self-employed, and one morning I woke up with the idea to make it happen. I decided to assemble a team of artists to create an interactive anthology about the Apocalypse. It was the summer of 2012, the ‘End of the World’ was nigh, so of course I wanted to take advantage of the mass freakout.

I started a group on Goodreads, invited a ton of people, and sent a bunch of hyper messages that set everyone on fire. In a very short time I was working with writers, editors, illustrators, and I felt like such a big shot.

Then, after the initial buzz wore off, it started feeling like a chore.

I didn’t have the experience, or the right tools, and I definitely didn’t have an endless supply of energy, so I started flailing. Coffee didn’t help and Red Bull failed to give me wings.

Looking back, I can clearly identify the starting point of my downfall: the email part. Every day I had to answer dozens of emails. Everybody needed guidance and I didn’t have a support team. By the time I found people to help me out, I was experiencing severe burnout.

This is what my ‘email practice’ consisted of:

  • Answering every email with a delay of at least a day
  • Answering questions I’d already answered
  • Not bothering to delete anything
  • Emailing 24/7

Just a month after the launch of grim5next I was inundated with emails I couldn’t find time -or desire- to answer, my mind was plagued by guilt, and I’m pretty sure I was thinking about taking up alcoholism as a hobby.

At that moment I didn’t even enjoy my project anymore. So I put it on hold and hid my face in shame. All this because of a bunch of emails.

Here’s the bad news delivered by Jennifer Senior, New York:

You spend about 28% of your time answering the 70 or so emails you get a day, and what’s worse is the psychological effects: According to the research of email management startup SaneBox, we need 67 seconds to recover from every message.

Whoa, no wonder everyone’s on about email overload. Have you ever experienced it? If yes, keep reading. It’s going to get nitty-gritty.

What Went Wrong

1. My email was always open.

Not having an office made it hard for me to close the damn inbox.

So I didn’t. I let it glare at me, sprouting more and more emails, some of them angry or confused because I hadn’t answered on time. Naturally, I tried to overcompensate by checking my inbox every 5 minutes. There was hardly time for anything else. I was doing work all day and all night.

Psychologists call it ‘work-life spillover’ and advise against it.

A study by Sonnentag and Bayer (2005) showed that employees who keep working after hours are usually tired and grumpy when they’re supposed to be relaxing. And it seems that it’s even worse for high-impact jobs.

On Dec. 3rd, major companies like Volkswagen and BMW announced that they’re taking preventive measures against employee burnout. Volkswagen decided to switch off employees’ email accounts 30 minutes after the end of their shifts, to prevent them from emailing from home.

One startup went further:

Quirky, a New York based start-up which shepherds inventions to the marketplace, has instituted a ‘blackout’ week once a quarter during which no one except customer service representatives are allowed to work, lest employees be tempted to check email.

You have to admire their dedication.

2. I was hoarding emails.

I’ve always had the habit of ‘collecting’ emails. When you collect stamps, they’d be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in a drawer somewhere, while the emails would be in your face all day.

Research shows that 3-5% of America’s population suffers from hoarding (Tompkins 2011). That’s twice as common as OCD and four times more common than bi-polar. In the digital era, these statistics have migrated to the workplace, affecting professionals, which in turn kills companies.

Here’s what Marsha Egan (InboxDetox) says about e-hoarding:

E-clutter, which results from e-hoarding, is costly, both mentally and monetarily. According to the research firm Basex, information overload costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $900 billion per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation. It adds time to normal tasks and creates stress.

Why do some of us like to pile things up?

According to Randy Frost (PhD), the main causes of hoarding are:

  • anxiety (You’re afraid that you’re not able to make a right decision/response.)
  • indecisiveness (You’re finding it difficult to decide which email to keep, which to delete.)
  • perfectionism (You’re obsessing over every little piece of information in every email.)
  • procrastination (You feel like your future self will be in a better mood to deal.)
  • avoidance behaviors (You’re putting off important decisions because you feel pressure.)
  • poor memory (You’re afraid that deleting emails will result in forgetting important things.)
  • attention problems (You can’t concentrate because there’s too much on your mind.)

In addition, it seems that hoarders are likely to give more meaning and value to their possessions, so they become attached. In the case of emails, you might feel that some of them hold the key to your future happiness.

In the end, the only key they hold is to your demise.

Hoarding starts small, then quickly escalates to a point where:


Be careful, Dante had a special circle for ‘hoarders & wasters‘.

3. I was procrastinating.

Nowadays, procrastination has become ‘the norm’. Who else is a procrastinator? I know you’re out there, I see you tweeting and posting on facebook, as social media makes it easier to procrastinate.

It’s not so much about time-management or risk-taking as much as mood-regulating. According to Fuschia Sirois (Bishop’s University, Canada) two parts of the brain fight when you have to do something unpleasant. While the limbic system says, ‘if it doesn’t feel good, why should I do it’, the pre-frontal cortex argues, ‘because you have to’, then the limbic system turns into a four-year-old, stomps its foot, and that’s that. You procrastinate for as long as you can.

If the pre-frontal cortex ‘wins the battle’, you end up working so close to the deadline that your blood pressure rises, your heart races, and you start feeling sick until the stress of it all shatters your energy levels.

Biologically speaking, it’s normal to have this reaction to tasks you don’t enjoy doing, but as a result of it, you end up going against yourself.

What Email-Efficient CEOs Advise

1. Answer emails ASAP.

A popular practice among CEO’s is to answer every email as soon as they receive it. The reason why it works is because it alleviates the ‘email overload’, which has been known to enforce ‘email sabbaticals‘.

Ana Dutra, CEO of Korn/Ferry Int., treats email with respect:

‘It takes 20-30 seconds to write a quick email explaining when you will get to something,’ she says. ‘So much is resolved and so many decisions are made by email, it is irresponsible not to respond.’

Just go to your inbox and hit the reply button. Most emails can be answered off the bat unless you’re running out or have to check something. You need to save your energy for tasks which require more brainpower. If answering emails takes up too much of your time, then you’re not doing it right.

Truth is, most people send emails without thinking. Some people ramble on, others just never get to the point. Usually this presents a problem to people who are too nice, myself included. I answer every email, do things after hours, and take up extra work, while some ‘lucky others’ just say no.

Repeat after me, I won’t waste time with time-wasters.

Bill Cosby said it best:

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.

Now let’s free-transform this quote:

I don’t know the key to success but the key to burnout is answering every email.

If being nice makes you tired, it’s time to toughen up.

Maren Kate Donovan, CEO of Zirtual, answers emails based on whether they’re important or not, and she leaves her email open.

Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, uses the ‘three sentences’ approach:

‘Sorry for the short response. I wish I could be more thorough, but it isn’t possible with the volume of emails I receive,’ along with a link to a site that explains the philosophy in a bit more detail:

For more ways to battle email overload, read this article by Holmes.

2. Disconnect.

If you want to replenish your brain power and jump start your energy, you need to become a pro at disconnecting from your work. Not just on a physical level, but intellectual and emotional as well.

This is vital because Terri Bodell (The Stress Doctor) found that:

When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to make silly mistakes and therefore you’re going to be highlighted as somebody who’s not doing your job properly.

So schedule some time with the family, meet your friends, talk yourselves silly until the Sun comes up. Don’t even think about the glaring inbox.

On the other hand, if you’re seriously burnt out, your inbox is growing tentacles, and you can’t possibly imagine being happy ever again, you’ll have to take more drastic measures. It’s time to take a vacation.

Did you know that a company in Denver offers to pay its employees to take vacations, with a huge bonus on top of that? Bart Lorang, CEO of Full Contact, the man behind this trend, concludes:

Humans are simply more productive when rested.

You don’t need to quit your job and become a nomad because of burnout. All you need to do is adopt some healthy habits designed by highly-efficient people and start your new stress-free lifestyle. And remember:

When the working day is done, engage in life at home.