Dealing with Email is a theme that comes up again and again and there are many different types of advice from different people. It has become common for many people to recommend dealing with Email only at certain types of day. I have seen recommendations that you should not check your email in the morning. This advice behind which I do not get. Email is a tool. it is a communications tool, a self-organization tool, and a productivity tool. You do not need to fear your inbox and you should strive to maintain a zero-item inbox. With the magic of using your Inbox as your source of the things you need to get done and a service like FollowUp.cc, you can follow the formulation promoted by Ari Meisel when you have items in your inbox by choosing for each item one of the following 3 actions:
Deal with it
I have written about this method of dealing with the inbox and with retaining and processing your life before and I find it to be extremely effective.
I do not intend to dwell, though, on email in this post, because it is about something else. It’s about dealing with the things that happen in your life that provoke an emotional response. The introduction and reminder here about email is because we can deal with our emotions in the same way. This is important because emotions, like email, with which we do not deal, tend to pile up and create a backlog and confusion over what has been handled and what hasn’t. Unhandled emotions, like unhandled exceptions, can cause performance problems and, potentially, a system crash. For a period of years I found myself in this situation. Emotional trauma and resentment built up in my life, mind, and body like the messages in some of my former co-workers’ email inboxes. I’ve seen people with thousands of items in the inbox with hundreds and even thousands of them unread. I would wonder: “With an inbox like that, why bother?” Communication via email cannot be reliable in such a situation and the entire exercise loses much of its utility. I didn’t realize that my emotional state was in exactly the same state. I now understand how much my productivity tanked as a result and how my misery mounted.
Fortunately, that time is behind me. As I have tackled my problems one by one (and continue to do so), I have realized how much I resented what I saw as shortcomings in others around me. I have realized that I was so consumed with pointing at others with blame for what I perceived as what was wrong in my life, that I was not addressing what I was feeling. I didn’t realize how important this is and let myself get into such a state of misery that it was hard to accomplish anything. Now that my emotional health and productivity have been restored, I understand that your emotional state is of paramount importance as a spouse, a parent, a professional of any kind, and as a human being.
Given the importance of emotion in the productivity and general well-being and overall happiness and everything, we need a way to deal with what we are feeling. Fortunately, there is such a framework. It is familiar and this is lucky for us because we can easily practice adhering to these principles. The first step in dealing with emotion is to acknowledge what we are feeling. Knowing it is there is the first step in being able to check the emotional inbox. With receipt of emotion, one can then deal with the feeling with one of the following 3 options:
Deal with it
Delete it - Living the Gmail way means you never delete email, you archive it, but archive doesn’t fit nicely into a 3 Ds formulation, so the term delete sticks around. The distinction is important here because you don’t really delete your emotion. By acknowledging, though, what you feel, and allowing yourself to really consciously feel it, you can let it pass. This, to me, is the meaning of archiving emotion. Acknowledge it, feel it, and if it involves someone else, express it. Even if it doesn’t involve someone else, verbalizing what you feel to a mirror or something else makes a difference in allowing it to pass. This is best suited for emotions like anger that come and consume and then fade. You won’t forget that you felt anger, but by giving it a name and allowing it to be present, you can archive it to your memory and move on to something more pleasant. This is like reading an email and understanding what it has to offer and then archiving it to be retrieved another time if there is a need for its memory. Failing to understand and feel the anger consciously means that it remains in the inbox, causing clutter out of proportion to the importance of the emotion itself.
Defer it – Other types of emotions don’t just pass. These are things with longer lasting impact. They aren’t simply archived and you don’t simply move on. For these things action is required. If you don’t have the time, energy stamina, will, or presence of mind at the moment to deal with those emotions when they arrive, deferring action until a later time may be the healthiest thing you can do. When hurt is involved and damage to a relationship has taken place, the moment is not always the best time to deal with it. Optimal living requires and stipulates that the emotion be addressed, but there is another time that is better to handle it than now. Perhaps you need to set a reminder to come back and take action on this emotion. Scheduling an email is a good tool for this.
Deal with it – Dealing with heavy emotion is something that needs to be done if one is going to be their best and live the life they desire. There are many practices for dealing with emotion. There is no substitute for candid conversations with humans in which you express your feelings and listen to the feelings of those who matter to you. Counseling is perhaps the best and most powerful (and most expensive and requires the most commitment) of all the ways of using the power of interpersonal communication to explore and engage and acknowledge feeling. Journaling practices like 5-Minute Journal or Morning Pages are effective ways to express your emotion and feel it.
So there you have it – your emotional state is an inbox with a constant flux of things going in and coming out and if you want to be healthy and productive, you must process the items in your inbox. The story of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars saga is the ultimate example of this. A person leaving emotion unhandled is susceptible to many of the wrong types of suggestion and ultimately suffers. I’m not suggesting you’ll become more machine than human and that your lust for power will lead you to a violent position of power in a Galactic Empire if you don’t practice emotional inbox hygiene. You will, though, have a buildup of undesired sludge in your engine that will prevent being the best professional, parent, spouse, and human you can be unless you treat this inbox with priority.