The anxiety of the inbox

When communication is constant and ubiquitous, switching off becomes more and more difficult – with potentially dire consequences for our mental health.

Like every knowledge worker, I’m a slave to my inboxes, and I have a few of them now:

  • Email. I have three accounts, one theoretically for work and two for personal stuff, but people who want to contact me rarely bother to make the distinction.
  • Social media. For some reason, the Silicon Valley tech wizards have seen it fit to put a messaging system in every single social network. This means that if you just signed up to a new social platform, your number of inboxes is now n+1.
  • Slack. Slack was invented to solve the problems of email, yet somehow it’s ended up being yet another collection of inboxes.
  • Trello. Colleagues can and will @ you on Trello too, and assign work tasks to you on there. This can be more efficient and less intrusive than email, but it’s still another inbox.

Taking all of these into account, I have about a dozen inboxes where people can and do contact me as often as they want. Most of these inboxes are open to the public. Of course, there are even more ways for people to grab me if they want to: phone, text message, snail mail.

The volume of communication aimed in my direction every day is a bit insane, when you stop to think about it – and I’m by no means Mr Popular. I go through quiet spells just like everyone else, and much of my work can be carried out with minimal communication for lengthy periods. I’m very average. This is not a boast about how busy I am, and it certainly isn’t a criticism of any of my clients or colleagues, most of whom are concise and considerate when it comes to emails.

We can never truly escape. Email never ends. Twitter is bottomless

Nevertheless, I have to deal with hundreds of individual communications in the average day, and most are completely pointless. For every email from a client or colleague discussing a worthwhile task, there could be 10 fishing expeditions from SEO ‘experts’, 5 press releases from brands trying to trick me into giving them free publicity, a similar number of collaboration requests from people who just want to churn out machine-optimised content of no value to anyone, and maybe 10 blatant ads. That’s not even counting the spam folder.

I delete most emails without doing more than skimming them, because otherwise I’d never get anything done.

On Twitter, it’s much worse. I manage one account that regularly gets as many as a thousand notifications a day. Every time I log in, I see the notification counter maxed out at 99+ in attention-grabbing crimson. I’d estimate that no more than 1 or 2 per cent of these communications are of value, relevance or interest, but the rest have to be waded through anyway. Fortunately direct messages on Twitter are a lot less frequent, but don’t be fooled – your @ replies list is an inbox too.

Notifications are not the answer

Smartphone notifications were supposed to make sense of all this, but switching on notifications for any of these inboxes feels a bit like thousands of needles being continuously fired into my brain. I switched them all off in 2014. Even back then, when work was pretty quiet, I found smartphone notifications a cruel and unusual form of punishment that annihilated any pretence at a work/life balance. Today I would find them intolerable; I suspect it’s no exaggeration to say that they would take years from my lifespan.

Our technological surroundings are designed to disrupt and confuse the linear mind, not nurture it

Notifications on your smartphone take the messages from all your other inboxes and put them in an uber-inbox that you carry along with you everywhere and never switch off. It constantly pings and chirps, interrupting what you’re doing and incrementally wrecking your attention span, creating false urgency for messages that are mostly irrelevant. No – smartphone notifications are not the answer, and will only make the problem significantly worse for most people who struggle with this.

What is the problem, really? The sheer volume of incoming communications might be easier to deal with if an escape were possible. Maybe that’s at the heart of it: we can never truly escape. Email never ends. Twitter is bottomless. Messages, demands, pitches and everything else continue to accumulate whether we’re looking at them or not, and they’re always just a tap or two away because software developers believe that everything should be efficient and easily accessible at all times, whether or not this is what our fallible human nature wants or even needs.

The email monster

We all have different ways of dealing with this, of course. Some of us try to partition email into specific timeslots with varying degrees of success; I usually fail at this because unread emails whose subject lines I have glimpsed will fester at the back of my mind for hours, contaminating my ability to focus on whatever it is I’m supposed to be getting on with (which almost certainly has nothing to do with email).

There are blocking apps that can work well, but require reserves of willpower and discipline that the harried and stressed worker, fighting to regain concentration, can’t always muster. There’s always the prospect of missing that truly important email that can’t wait, because an email that isn’t replied to in a timely fashion gets buried and forgotten about (one of the side effects of instant, effortless and free communication). There’s also the dopamine addiction cycle, which taints our inboxes as surely as it does our Facebook account.

At one point or another, most of us fall into the trap of monitoring our various inboxes semi-continuously, bouncing from one to the other, replying to messages as they come in (and hence training others to expect instant responses), unable to focus on anything of value and ending the day with a gnawing, buzzing sensation of restless tension and incompleteness.

Technology was meant to reduce our working hours but has only extended them indefinitely

That’s me on my worst days: overwhelmed by the tide of incoming communications, and even if most are soon deleted, I have to waste precious, finite mental energy deciding what to do with each one. It’s exhausting and a complete waste of time. It shatters my ability to concentrate on the skilled work that actually pays the bills: writing and editing, tasks that require long periods of intense, unbroken focus. Such a flow state is impossible to achieve under the oppressive glare of a rapidly filling inbox. Our technological surroundings are designed to disrupt and confuse the linear mind, not nurture it.

On my better days, I spend ten minutes reading and replying to email first thing in the morning while I’m composing my task list, I’ll check it again after lunch, and maybe once more before finishing work. On the good days, I have the energy to resist and find the focus I need. But it’s hard, and human nature is weak; after a few days of discipline, all it often takes is some unrelated stressor to break those defences down and leave my attention in bits again. I go through phases of being more and less able to cope with this.

A repetitive strain injury of the mind

I can only think or care about so many things in a day. The internet is infinite but the mind is not. I’m convinced that we simply aren’t capable of working at our best under such conditions – that easy communication via multiple inboxes is a curse, not a blessing, acting against our best interests and stifling our ability to perform work of real value.

My inboxes contribute to the constant anxiety I feel when online. It’s a low-key anxiety that with hindsight I now know that I’ve felt for around 15 years, but over the last couple of years it has begun to assert itself more strongly, and I’ve been able to recognise it for what it is. Matt Haig’s ‘repetitive strain injury of the mind’ is very real.

Is there a solution? I don’t know. I am actively trying to reduce the number of ways in which people can contact me. Maybe in an ideal world email would be rationed, by invitation only, or social media wouldn’t exist, but the true underlying cause is simply the overloaded and overwhelming nature of modern life. We all have to do so much more, and so much more quickly. Technology was meant to reduce our working hours but has only extended them beyond all limits. As David Graeber writes in ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant’, ‘technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.’

Slack isn’t the answer to fixing email. Slack is just another inbox. The problem is that everyone wants to contact you all the time, and you can’t get away from it for long. The problem is that communication is free and easy and therefore worthless.

How people react to this pressure depends on the individual and their role. I suspect most of us think we’re fine with it, even feel quite capable of handling the pressure much of the time. On the rough days, we convince ourselves that everyone else is dealing with it so we should just get our shit together – until stress, overwork, or one pointless email too many tips the scale too far in the wrong direction, and we realise that email, Twitter and all the rest are having a negative effect on our mental health. Maybe even our competence at doing the thing we’re supposed to be doing.

Most micro-communications are pointless and unnecessary. We can only accomplish a few tasks of real value in a day. I am convinced that most of us would be better able to face these tasks if we weren’t constantly pestered by trivia and irrelevant demands or queries.

So I’m afraid I don’t have any real answers, but if you find your inbox overwhelming and wish it would all just go away, you’re not alone.