If you’re anything like me, some emails are guaranteed to make you cringe, tense up or bring about an emotional response. While being mindful may be the last thing on your mind, these very moments are when it’s most important. Personally, I like to practice mindful emailing and my mantra is respond; don’t react.
To learn more about maintaining mindfulness when it comes to email, I spoke with two mindfulness experts. Their advice will help you learn how to detox digitally and find inner peace.
Get both your breath and body involved
“Before opening your email, take a deep inhale and an even slower exhale. This kind of breath reminds the central nervous system that you are in charge of your body and creates calm throughout your body and in your mind,” says Rachel Shanken, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Yoga Therapist and Registered Yoga Teacher of MindBodyWise. Notice what sensations you’re feeling; pause before clicking, breathing in between each exchange or reply. Use the breath as a mindful practice of presence, consciousness, intentionality and clarity.
Don’t reply immediately
If you receive an email that seems urgent, pause and take a breath to create space. Ask yourself how urgent it really is and the real deadline. “Other people’s urgency doesn’t have to necessitate your urgency,” says Shanken. It’s difficult to communicate effectively when the central nervous system is on high alert. When you experience stress, brain function slows down. To remedy this, give your body a chance to settle down by standing up and taking a mindful walk.
“Tapping into the body sensations you experience as you move helps to divert your attention from the stressful email and bring you into the present moment. This mindful movement allows your body and emotions to mellow, so that your mind can turn back on. Then, writing your reply is much easier and it will be generated from a more rational, calm place,” she says.
Schedule small intervals of time to check emails and stick to them. “These time boundaries remind your brain that you are in charge of your time,” says Shanken. She recommends purchasing an alarm clock (rather than utilizing your phone) to avoid checking email first thing in the morning. “This starts off your day with other people’s needs becoming your to-do list. Instead, leave your phone in another room and wake up to an alarm clock. Take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself of something you’re grateful for (just waking up today is a gift!). Give yourself at least 15 minutes (30 is even better) before opening your inbox.”
Make the effort to practice that ‘care and mindfulness is essential’ when the majority of our daily interactions are digital, says Edward Jones, a Buddhism-inspired Vinyasa yoga instructor and psychoanalyst-in-training of Wheel and Axle and The Shala.
Mindful emailing: Respond, don’t react
“I like to think of the distinction between being reactive and being responsive,” says Jones. “Am I launching into a knee-jerk or gut-level reply, or have I taken a moment to consider the best way to respond? Trusting our instincts is often a good thing, but what would happen if we paused for a moment to consider any subtle difference between our reaction, which may be emotionally charged, and the response that gets us the outcome we’re looking for?
“In meditation practice,” he continues, “we often refer to placing a ‘gap’ between thought and action or feeling and action. Applying this technique is helpful in any form of communication. A good email is one that takes into account how we’re feeling but includes that gap to make sure we’re expressing ourselves clearly.”
Jones explains a simple way to put this into practice: Read an email all the way through twice before hitting send, maybe even imagining you’re the recipient reading it for the first time. Not only are you more likely to weed out pesky typos, but also you will have allowed extra time to contemplate how you’re expressing yourself.
“I am more likely to let an email sit in my inbox for a week before responding as opposed to giving a hasty reply. So my mindfulness practice right now is to try and respond promptly but thoughtfully, respecting the other person’s time and my own,” he says.
“That said,” adds Jones, “I also like to apply the idea of the gap to my relationships with devices. I try to notice how I react to the sound of an incoming email or the vibration of a text message. Do I immediately give in to Pavlovian conditioning and reach into my pocket for the phone, or can I instead keep my attention on whatever it is I’m doing at the moment?”
Mindfulness practices such as meditation help develop skills of doing and thinking about what we want, when we want, instead of responding to the beeps of digital devices that make us feel we should be available at all times. “Giving ourselves permission to be unavailable, to connect only when it is healthy and appropriate for us, is becoming more and more important,” says Jones.