That email that I sent to my boss late last night—did I strike the right tone? Better read it again.
Ooh, I just got an email notification. What if it’s something I need to respond to immediately?
I know I should be sleeping, but what if there’s an emergency at work? It won’t hurt to check my email one last time.
If thoughts like these feel familiar to you, you’re not alone. Our lives have been punctuated by email pings for over two decades. Has this innovation in communication made many aspects of our lives easier? Absolutely. But do many of us pay a psychological cost for this convenience? The answer is also: Absolutely, according to Nicholas Farrell, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and Regional Clinical Director at NOCD.
Here we’ll explore how constant email checking can impact your mental health and productivity. What are the psychological triggers behind this relentless digital habit? And how can you regain control over your inbox and, more importantly, your time, attention, and well-being? Let’s dive in.
Email: a 21st-Century problem
I confess that I’m a constant email checker, and have been since I got my first “addy” back in 1997. From the get-go, I cringed at the thought of having unread emails pile up, and conditioned myself to open them every time I sat at my computer. Smart phones only made the habit that much easier to indulge in when the vibration in my pocket let me know that somebody, somewhere might have something important to share.
For the past decade or so, around 80% of the email I get is connected to a company I bought something from once upon a time, trying to re-engage me with news of a new product or service. Deleting them can be done with a swipe of my thumb, of course, but for the past two weeks, I’ve taken the time to unsubscribe from hundreds of them. I thought that would ease the problem of my constant inbox checking. But now that I’ve upped the odds that incoming emails might actually be important, the need has become even stronger.
But were even those emails so important that they needed to be read and answered immediately? Rarely. So why am I—and likely you, if you’re reading this—like this?
Why do I check my email so often?
Well, there are a few factors at play here. First among them is conditioning and habit formation. When you get an email, especially one that brings good news or important information, it can cause a spike in dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure. Over time, this may lead to a habit where checking email becomes an automatic response. There’s also good old FOMO—whether it’s a fear of missing out on a business opportunity, concert tickets, a big online sale, or a get-together with friends.
And then there are job expectations. Work no longer happens just during office hours and, well, in an office. With the recent explosion in remote and hybrid work setups—including people working across different time zones—it can feel like there’s an expectation to always be available and responsive. This can cause you to constantly check your email, Slack, Teams, and other digital work-related communications to make sure you don’t miss anything.
For some—myself included—the uncertainty of not knowing what’s in their inbox can trigger anxiety, as well. Or there might be stress tied to their sent messages. (Did I make a mistake? Am I sure I actually hit “send”?) Frequent checking might ease these anxieties, but only temporarily.
“It could be something as simple as a misspelling, a grammatical error, or a clumsy bit of punctuation that makes you overcome with fear that you’ve sent some profanity-laced tirade to the wrong person—and so you check your sent box to reassure yourself that you didn’t,” says Dr. Farrell.
He adds that how you engage with your email can be highly individualized. For him, seeing an unread email badge is a call to action—while his wife has no issue with unopened messages numbering in the thousands.
The downside of constant email checking
While we all have unique habits about how we interact with our emails, experts agree that frequently checking your email is not especially healthy or helpful.
For starters, it disrupts your focus and reduces productivity—since constant interruptions fragment your attention span and hinder deep, meaningful work. It can also increase stress and anxiety, particularly if your emails often contain demanding or challenging info that must be dealt with. Plus, it contributes to poorer work-life balance, blurring the boundaries between professional and personal time. All of this can lead to burnout and a greater risk of developing mental health issues like depression.
One study of full-time employees published in Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings found that those who felt they needed to monitor work emails outside of office hours reported higher levels of anxiety and lower measures of well-being—regardless of how much time they actually spent checking and responding to their emails. Just the expectation that they needed to be online was enough to impact their mental health.
And get this: Even the partners of constant email checkers had more stress and diminished feelings of well-being, as well as reduced relationship satisfaction. So the problem can be contagious.
Tips for reducing your email-checking habit
So what can you and I—and the other email obsessives of the world—do to change our habit? I’m glad you asked! Here are some strategies that Dr. Farrell recommends:
Schedule specific times for email. Try to carve out blocks of time for checking and responding to emails, such as mid-morning and late afternoon, to avoid constant interruptions throughout the day. You’ll be more productive and feel less scattered.
Turn off your notifications. Without all the dings and buzzing from your devices, you might not have the same urge to impulsively check your emails whenever a new message arrives.
Set some boundaries. Communicate clear expectations with colleagues and clients about your email response times—like, for example, that you’ll be offline at 6 pm every day, but back on at 9 am—so any important messages should come your way before then. You can also set yourself “away” on your devices. It might also help to have a strategy in case of a true work emergency. Maybe they can text or call you.
Organize. Spend a little time using filters and labels to prioritize essential emails, reducing the time you spend sifting through less critical messages.
Unsubscribe! Yes, in my case it made my inbox feel more critical, but you might find that it reduces the amount of time you spend deleting emails and maybe takes your stress level down a notch.
Practice mindfulness techniques. This can look like a quick meditation or breathing exercise that re-centers you when you feel the impulse to check your email. This can help cultivate more intentional habits and the anxiety that comes along with always being “on.”
Dr. Farrell adds that while frequently checking email doesn’t mean something is necessarily up, it can, when it causes or results from significant stress or anxiety, be indicative of a mental health condition such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Could your email checking be OCD?
OCD is a mental health condition typified by intrusive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental rituals (compulsions) performed to alleviate the distress caused by these obsessions. Common obsessions include fears of contamination, harm, or making mistakes, while typical compulsions involve excessive cleaning, checking, or arranging. These symptoms significantly interfere with your daily life, causing considerable anxiety, and even raising the risk of developing other mental health issues, such as depression.
“In the mental health space, we often describe OCD as ‘the doubting disease,‘” explains Dr. Farrell. “This term captures the essence of OCD’s hallmark: a relentless, unsettling uncertainty that can manifest in behaviors like repeatedly checking your email inbox. People with OCD may constantly be looking for emails to assuage a fear of missing an important message from a colleague.
“They may spend hours reviewing their messages, driven by a worry of inadvertently sending incorrect or inappropriate content. This compulsive checking is an attempt to alleviate the distress caused by their doubts. However, this relief is typically temporary, as the nature of OCD creates an endless cycle of uncertainty and reassurance-seeking behaviors.”
If this vicious cycle sounds familiar to you, it’s important to see a therapist who can identify whether your experience is related to a mental health disorder. All of the mental health issues we discussed above have effective, evidence-based treatments. If you have OCD, that “first-line” treatment is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.
Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP)
ERP was specifically developed to reduce the symptoms of OCD, and there’s a substantial body of evidence to demonstrate that it does just that.
Here’s how it works: An ERP-trained therapist gradually exposes you to what triggers your obsessions (exposure), and gives you tools to help you resist the urge to perform your usual compulsive behaviors (response prevention).
“In the context of compulsive email checking, ERP might involve planned exposures like not checking your emails for progressively longer periods of time, not immediately responding to notifications, or intentionally sending emails with minor, deliberate imperfections,” says Dr. Farrell. “These exercises aim to reduce the anxiety associated with not checking emails and to break the cycle of compulsion by demonstrating that the feared outcomes are either completely manageable or highly unlikely.”
For too long, ERP has been inaccessible for millions of people with the condition. In recent years, however, insurers have begun to realize the scope—and cost—of untreated OCD and expanded coverage. And research done in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that ERP is just as effective when administered remotely as in person.
This increased access has made ERP a viable option for many who need it. If you suspect you might have OCD, consider learning more about NOCD’s accessible approach to evidence-based treatment. We can connect you with a therapist in our network who can evaluate and treat you. Committing to ERP is a courageous step but often leads to substantial, life-changing results.