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The trick to conquering email is to treat it like a sport

AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
“Just this pitch.”
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For the contemporary office worker, the dream of achieving “inbox zero” is about as awe-inspiring—and far-fetched—as pitching a no-hitter in the major leagues. Instead, we find ourselves buried under relentless waves of messages from co-workers, clients, and collaborators.

But what if we were able to stop looking at our emails as a burden, and start treating them as a game? As a clinical and sport psychologist, I’ve spent my career using performance psychology to help athletes cultivate the right mindset for success. Many of these same lessons can be applied to our everyday lives—and specifically, to our overcrowded inboxes.

One of the most important keys to dealing with work-related stress is to adopt a growth mindset, as laid out by psychologist Carol Dweck. This involves training your brain to stop looking at emails as a threat (“How am I supposed to respond to 112 unread messages?”) and start treating it as a challenge (“What are my opportunities here?”). The growth mindset lets us take on even the most mundane tasks with ease, and even enjoyment.

Email isn’t exactly a World Series game, but it can certainly induce pressure and anxiety. Your ability to defeat it depends on your attitude and being in an enthusiastic yet relaxed state. Here are a few tips on how to tackle your replies with a high-performance attitude:

1. Use adaptive self-talk

When elite athletes find themselves struggling at the free throw line or batter’s box, I often remind them to tell themselves, “Just this pitch,” or “Just this throw.” You can do the same by reminding yourself to stay in the moment. In this case, “Just one email at a time.” Before you know it, you will be in a groove and have a few emails answered. These successes will propel you to be more efficient.

2. Enjoy the process

It’s true that email may not be “fun” in the traditional sense, but neither is bench pressing 275 pounds. The key is to humanize the process. When responding to emails, think about how you can use language to make your response more conversational. Think about the person on the receiving end, and throw in a joke, compliment or link to an interesting article. Try to make each turn at the keyboard a chance to actually connect with someone, rather than treating email as a constant slog.

3. Remember to breathe

Breathing sounds simple enough, but most of us actually don’t know how to do it properly. When we’re overstressed or overwhelmed, breathing operates like a biological reset button. That’s why Navy SEALs, along with plenty of other world-class athletes, rely on breathing training.

Breathing training can be practiced for as little as five minutes a day. It is ideal to take approximately six full breaths per minute.

Start by counting the number of seconds of each inhalation and exhalation when you breathe normally. Then try to regulate your breath into nine- to ten-second cycles: four seconds for each inhalation, and four seconds for each exhalation, followed by a one- to two-second pause. Imagine there is a balloon in your stomach that inflates when you bring the breath in with each inhalation and deflates with each exhalation. When you’re relaxed, you’re better able to tackle those stressful emails and communicate with confidence.

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