There’s nothing more defeating than hearing that ding on your computer letting you know that you have a new email, then opening your email system and seeing the hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of unread emails you have backlogged in your inbox. For people with ADHD, this can be a common, everyday occurrence. But why?
First, let’s acknowledge that people with ADHD have a love-hate relationship with email.
Why would people with ADHD love email, you might ask? Good question. First, it provides infinite novelty by always giving you something new, bright and shiny to look at (if you didn’t know, ADHD brains love novelty). Second, it’s a great distraction and provides a rabbit hole you can dive into when you want to avoid another task.
There are other reasons why people with ADHD love emails, though. Communicating by email allows you to avoid phone calls or even face-to-face meetings. Why is that a good thing? Because it allows you to take time to think before you answer and put together a thoughtful and informative response rather than being expected to respond in the moment.
Sounds good, right? So why do people with ADHD struggle to manage their inboxes? Well, let’s explore the things people with ADHD hate about email to see the other side of the coin.
Email and other technology advances have created an unreasonable expectation for response times. We live in a world of instant-gratification and on-demand access, which can apply to our communication as well. Did your co-worker send you an email last night that you’re still mulling over? If you didn’t communicate that you received the email and are giving it some thought, you might receive some iteration of the dreaded “bumping this to the top of your inbox” message — how’s that for added pressure? Taking time to respond can make you feel like you’re not meeting expectations, which can trigger a sense of shame or failure.
Similarly, you can also have unrealistic expectations for yourself. Quite often, people assume that email shouldn’t take up any time in the day… you should just be able to multi-task and quickly check any message right when it comes in and quickly dash off a response — all while you’re trying to work on some other task.
The fact is the opposite is true — there’s actually no such thing as a quick email just like there’s no such thing as multi-tasking. Multi-tasking implies that your brain is focused on two different tasks or topics at once, which isn’t possible. When you think you’re multi-tasking, your brain is actually switching back and forth (and back and forth and back and forth) between the two tasks. Moreover, multi-tasking forces your brain to constantly switch cognitive contexts, the framework it’s using to understand a certain idea or topic that you’re focusing on. This process slows your processing down and increases the time it will take you to complete a task. (Want to learn more about multi-tasking? Click here to read an article we wrote on the topic).
When you quickly jump to read or respond to an email while you’re working on something else, you’re asking your brain to load a completely different cognitive context than the one it was focusing on, which is a complex task. An email presents an entire screen of messages with different cognitive contexts. Your brain needs time to shift away from what it was focused on, read the email, digest the content, organize the information, and assess the required follow-up steps. All of that always takes longer than we expect it to.
Chaos & Information Overload
Another reason people with ADHD struggle with email is because it’s information overload and (as I like to call inboxes), they are a big ol’ disorganized mess. Emails come in as they are received — the information floods in and unless you’ve manually set up rules, there’s absolutely no system or organized process to your inbox (some apps are trying to solve this, but the technology is far from perfect). That alone is enough to cause someone with ADHD to feel stuck and unsure how to move forward. Now add in the random messages and out-of-the-blue requests that come at you faster than you can address them, and you’re left with an overwhelmed system that causes your ADHD brain to freeze, lock up, or shut down. If your brain is stuck in freeze mode, you’re probably going to avoid your emails for some time. That will only increase your sense of overwhelm.
Email communication can trigger perfectionism, too. Quite often, people who struggle with perfectionism might spend hours writing an email that others might draft in minutes. They obsess over every word used and write (and rewrite!) the same sentence over and over, all of which delays their response time, keeps the task of responding stuck on their to-do list, and the unanswered email crowding their inbox.
Simple Tips to Get a Handle On Your Inbox
The reality is that almost everybody struggles with the things mentioned above, but people with ADHD tend to struggle more with them because of how the ADHD brain is wired. It’s nothing to feel shame about and is definitely something you can improve. I’ve curated a list of ADHD-friendly strategies that can help you build the skills to get a handle on your inbox.
Schedule time for email - As I mentioned above, email does take time. Try not to fool yourself into thinking you can just “send a quick email” or “take a minute to respond”. It helps to be as intentional with your email time as you are with other work activities like calls and meetings. Carve out specific time on your calendar every day to look at your email, read new messages, and reply to ones that need a response. Then do your best to stick to the schedule.
Limit how much your email can notify you - Turn off email notifications and reminders on your computer and phone. One of the biggest reasons people can get sucked into an inbox vortex is because our brains are trained to respond immediately when we’re notified of a new message. Turning off your notifications and following the schedule you set for yourself in your calendar can help you gain control over your inbox rather than letting it control you.
Communicate expectations - Especially if you follow the first two tips, telling people about your email management process can help set realistic expectations. If you decide to check your email twice a day, you can add that information to your signature so people are aware that your response might not be immediate. Or, if you read an email and need time to think about it or digest the information before you respond, let the person know… a simple, “Hi there, I got your email and am taking some time to think about it. I’ll respond to you by the end of tomorrow” lets the other person know the status of your response and takes the pressure off you to respond right away.
Automate your inbox as much as possible - Did you know that you can set rules up for your inbox to follow? This process can also help you stay on top of your emails. For example, if you work on a team you can create a folder in your inbox called “Team” and set up a rule that any email from the people on your team goes directly into that folder. Then, if you’re following the “Schedule a time for email” suggestion, you can designate time on your calendar specifically to check that folder and respond to your team. Similarly, you can filter newsletters and other low-priority emails to go into a different folder so that your inbox doesn’t get cluttered by all those emails that seem to come in all the time.
Organize your email system - Given the flurry at which emails come in, it might seem impossible to actually organize your email system. But, I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not! Try one or two of these tips to help you organize your inbox:
Have different email addresses for different parts of your life - even different emails for work, family, and shopping can be helpful.
Unsubscribe from mass emails you don’t read regularly.
Take an hour or two to do a mass delete — if an email is more than two weeks old and you haven’t read it yet, delete it.
Create a way to send emails without interacting with your inbox - This is one of my favorite tips because it’s so simple. Oftentimes we fall into the email rabbit hole just because we open our inboxes. But, what if you could send an email without opening your inbox? Well, you can! Just follow these simple directions:
Open a document (you can use Google Doc, Microsoft, or even Pages if you’re a Mac user)
Type this onto the page mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org (you’ll want to put in the actual email address you want to send an email to — I’ve just used our email address as an example).
Note - you’ll need to include the “mailto:” before the email address… this is what tells your document that the words are an email
Then, just click the hyperlink and a blank email should pop up with that address in the To field!
Practice some of the five D’s
At Dixon Life Coaching, we’re big fans of the Five D’s: Delete, Delay, Diminish, Delegate, and Disappoint. It’s a great system to help ADHD brains get unstuck and take action and can easily apply to email management.
Delete - Think of deleting emails (or filing them away in folders once you’re done with them) as Marie Kondo-ing your inbox. Once you’ve responded to it (or determined that you don’t need to respond to it), get it out of your inbox. Delete it or file it away in a folder, and don’t think about it again.
Delay - Consider this your permission to not respond immediately to emails. Follow your schedule, take time to think, and set your own internal deadline if you have to.
Diminish - Diminish can be actively decreasing the amount of emails you receive. This can be accomplished by unsubscribing from mass emails or asking people to contact you in different ways. For example, you can ask family to call you instead of emailing and friends to text you instead of emailing.
Delegate - Want to hear something interesting? Not all emails that were sent to you have to be answered by you! If you have an assistant, you can ask them to respond to as many emails as they can. Simply forward it to them and ask them to take care of it. Or, you might have a colleague who’s in a better position to respond than you — respond to the sender with a simple “Happy to get that information to you — Adam (cc’d here) is the point person on that project and can share an update with you... (just don’t forget to cc your colleague if you use this technique!)
Disappoint - By implementing some of these processes to manage your inbox, you might disappoint people from time to time. Guess what — that’s absolutely okay! It’s more important to have a system that works for you, not a system that keeps you stuck trying to please everyone else. When you have a system that works for you and your ADHD brain, your productivity and ability to get stuff done will actually go up!
I know this much information might be overwhelming and you might not be sure where to start. First, I recommend starting with just one or two of the tips mentioned above. Don’t try to implement them all at once. Test a couple of them out for a few weeks and see how they work for you. If they help you, great! Once they’ve become a habit you can add one or two more tips to test out. If they don’t help you… then take a couple of weeks to test out different ones.
At Dixon Life Coaching, we know how overwhelming life can be for high achievers with ADHD. Even something that seems as simple as email can quickly devolve into digital chaos when you’re fighting against your ADHD brain. I curated the tips in this article specifically for high achievers with ADHD… implementing them will actually help you start to work with your ADHD brain, not against it. And if you want even more inbox management tips, check out this article, ADHD-Friendly Tips to Manage Your Inbox, written by DLC Founder Casey Dixon.
If you’re a high achiever who struggles to manage your ADHD, I highly encourage you to check out our programs and see which one might be a good fit to help you get a handle on your ADHD (and your inbox!).
About the Author
Melanie Sobocinski, Ph.D. is a Team Coach for Dixon Life Coaching. She is an ICF-certified PCC and a MentorCoach CMC with an ADHD specialization. Melanie loves working with professors and other high achievers in academia who struggle with ADHD, helping them build the tools needed to thrive in academic settings. Read more about Melanie.