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How to Manage Email Anxiety

Elizabeth Seyle Fenton


  • Email anxiety stems from many causes: volume, pace, and mismatched expectations about response time, to name a few.
  • Due to the pandemic and hybrid work, the volume and pace of email has exploded.
  • A lot of email anxiety stems from using email as a to-do list or a scheduler.
How to Manage Email Anxiety
Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

Flying home last Saturday, I finally had a chance to see a movie that had been on my watchlist: BlackBerry. The movie tells of the rise and fall of Research in Motion Limited, the Canadian technology company responsible for developing the BlackBerry. If you remember life before email, you probably also remember the BlackBerry. Once a ubiquitous accessory among lawyers, the BlackBerry fell from fashion after smartphones came into vogue. To give you a flavor of how attached I was to my BlackBerry, when I was expecting my children, my husband told me that he did not want me to take the BlackBerry into the delivery room. (I assented, and fortunately they were both born on the weekend.) I assure you that I was not alone in my addiction—or, should I say, commitment—to the device.

Seeing the movie recalled memories of that time of my life—the time before smartphones. Ironically, my daughter was born the day after the release of the iPhone. I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the freedom having a Blackberry gave me. I was able to work in Big Law from 2005 to 2013, and I became a partner during my first parental leave, partly because I could address client and colleague concerns from anywhere (and, of course, anytime). But after my son was born, I never truly felt like I could keep up with my email. Add to the mix all the other ways we are barraged with communications on any given day, and it’s no surprise that email can be a major source of anxiety for those of us who are prone to it.

Email anxiety stems from many causes: volume, pace, and mismatched expectations about response time, to name a few. There is also the fact that we do need to step away from email during the workday so that we can do what I call the “serious brain work”—the focused attention to a brief, a deposition, a hearing, or a trial. The distraction of email is not conducive to the creativity, strategic thinking, and attention to detail those core tasks of litigation lawyering require.

And yet, during the pandemic, and now with hybrid work, the volume and pace of email exploded (as did my anxiety about keeping up with it). I am sure I am not alone in this challenge, either. I’ve tried lots of systems, ranging from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done to Paul H. Burton’s book QuietSpacing. The ABA Law Practice Division e-book Microsoft Outlook for Legal Professionals authored by Affinity Consulting is targeted to lawyers and it is excellent. No system is perfect, but I have found these resources useful in keeping my inbox manageable (if not at inbox zero).

Here are 10 strategies to reduce email anxiety:

  1. Unsubscribe ruthlessly. Search for the word “unsubscribe” in your email and then either unsubscribe or manage your email preferences.
  2. Outlook Specific Tips: Use the Rules feature in Outlook to have emails go directly into a folder instead of clogging your inbox. For example, I have my ABA emails and daily newsletter subscriptions delivered to a Reading folder that I check once a day. Learn how to use other Outlook tools such as “Delay Delivery,” “Have Replies Sent To,” and “Quick Parts” to maximize efficiency and minimize anxiety.
  3. Before reflexively hitting “reply all,” think about whether everyone must receive your reply.
  4. As a default, set your notifications to “silent.” You can always look at the Outlook icon to see if you have new mail.
  5. When you get an email along the lines of “Please call me,” resist the temptation to think automatically that you did something wrong. Take a deep breath, walk around the hall, or drink some water, then make the call. Even if it is unpleasant news, it is better to go ahead and deal with it most of the time.
  6. Manage expectations about response time. As someone who manages teams, I tell my team members from the start that I am a night owl, and unless I explicitly say so (or we’re in the throes of finalizing a brief), I don’t expect an immediate response. I like the way my fellow Mental Health and Wellness Committee member, Haley Maple, handles this:
    My working hours and your working hours may be different. Please do not feel obligated to reply outside your normal working hours.
  7. If you get an email that makes you angry, stressed, disappointed, defensive, and/or frustrated, resist the temptation to respond immediately. We all know this. And yet. Draft an email to yourself with what you want to say and save it in drafts. Then revisit it after you cool off.
  8. Along the same lines, when you do get an email that elicits a negative reaction, remember that your reading of it may not be accurate. Since email has no tone, a short email can often be interpreted as rude or brusque. Remember that sometimes an email is just short because the sender is traveling, multi-tasking, or even just having a bad day.
  9. Pick up the phone. This is a controversial one, I know. But sometimes there is no substitute for talking on the phone.
  10. Have two devices. Also controversial. I exchanged my Blackberry 10 years ago for a smartphone. Many of us did so as “Bring Your Own Device” became the standard. I foresee a shift back to having separate personal and work devices in the near future. As of about six months ago, I went back to having separate devices, and it has helped a great deal to reduce my email anxiety.

Remember that email is a communication tool and is not always the right tool for the job. A lot of email anxiety stems, in my view, from using email as a to-do list or a scheduler, or, even worse, to communicate in real time. Other tools are better suited to the task. Use them.