Sunday, October 2nd, 2016
An email, unlike a phone call or instant message, is a relatively non-intrusive form of communication and doesn’t demand your attention straight away. This makes it ideal in many circumstances where time isn’t of the essence, or where preparation and consideration is required. That is of course unless we let an app or device alert us with notifications, or we constantly check for emails dropping in our laps like distractions cluster bombs.
Trying to achieve ‘Inbox: Zero’ is a fruitless exercise of time wastage, so I’ve set myself a few rules to live by to be more time efficient with email, and less distracted by it.
1. Only check emails 2 or 3 times a day, and plan responses
Unless your job role involves receiving and responding to emails constantly (i.e. some form of support), then you probably don’t need to check for emails as often as you do. For me, I get an itch to do it when my focus drops, or I see the Gmail tab in a browser window. The vast majority of emails don’t need reading or responding to immediately, and if there’s something really urgent, someone should ideally give you a call.
The time spent checking for emails is relatively small, but it’s your productivity and focus which suffers the most. If you receive an email which you actually read, then that’s more time. If you decide to respond, then that’s even more time. If it’s an email which worries you, gets you thinking about a different project, or anything else, then that time is potentially greater than all the above. Numerous times I’ve read one email and completely dropped what I was doing to focus my mind on that, despite no urgency
Emails also breed more emails. Sometimes I’ve thought quickly responding to an email will help, but then it’s quickly followed up by another 1 (or 5).
So knowing the above, I’m going to set myself 2 or 3 points in the day when I check email. This’ll help me tackle the inbox all in one, saving time and lessening smaller distractions throughout the day. I’ll also communicate this to my clients so they know how I work, and via a signature on my emails.
Another thing which makes email feel like an endless task is the way it’s rarely thought as ‘work’. To-do lists make achieving any task feel productive when doing ‘real’ work, so I’m going to marry the two and start creating email to-dos. This’ll hopefully help me tackle emails in bulk, saving time, but also simply feel like I’m accomplishing something by ticking them off.
2. Remove email from mobile devices
When I’m walking back from a meeting or other place out and about, I instantly grab my phone to check if I’ve recieved any emails. I’m rarely looking for a specific email, just a general curiosity of what could be in my inbox. 99.99% of the time I don’t need to know this, and rarely feel better for doing so. I may tell myself I’m making the most of my time by getting ‘work done’ on the move, but that’s just an excuse.
Worse than just inbetween a work day, I check for emails sporadically 7 days a week, which means my down time is potentially affected by one unexpected or negative email. I’m essentially unable to disconnect from my digital life (and work) and fully enjoy my free time… and it’s all my fault.
Turning off the email accounts on my mobile devices might just give me a chance at relaxing in my free time.
3. Only send emails between 8am and 6pm, Mon-Fri.
Following on from the last point, I’ve often emailed late at night trying to keep ontop of my work load, but this accidently sends the message that I’m working 24/7 and that I’m reachable and responding at all hours. Which I’m not.
By sending emails only between working hours and days, I won’t invite the expectation that I’m available all hours of the day. I may write or prepare an email, but I won’t send it until the next working day. (or via an email scheduler like Boomerang)
4. No notifications
I stopped receiving notifications of new emails on my devices 3 years ago and haven’t looked back, so strictly speaking it’s nothing new to me, but it was invaluable in helping me be more focussed. Similar in point to everything above, it only takes the sight of one email address, subject, or the first lines of the email to throw your brain off course and pull you completely out of what you were doing, whether you plan to respond to the email or not.
Simply put, without notifications, you won’t know you have an email. Result!
5. Unsubscribe, don’t just delete
For years I’ve been subscribing my email to things of genuine interest, and carelessly throwing it in input boxes all over the web. And for years I’ve been deleting the same updates, newsletters, offers, and announcements without reading them. All this amounts to is me having to use more brain power each day to sort or identify the important emails I actually want to read, and delete the ones I don’t.
Unsubscribing will leave your inbox less bloated of stuff you don’t intend to read or need, and take up less of your time.
6. Create & use templates
When it comes to writing HTML, CSS and JS, there are countless frameworks and templates which aim to make you more time efficient by reducing repetitive tasks. Why is it then we don’t take the same approach with email and spend considerable time writing things we’ve written a hundred times before?
Creating and using templates which are easily customised to the person you’re emailing are a great way to save time, but be just as personal as if you’d written everything from scratch.
I’ll leave you with this ancient proverb:
“There will always be more email.”