Take Back Your Work Day and Work Life
Updated: May 4
How many emails do you have in your inbox at this very moment? 4? 400? 4000? More?
While researching my book Humanity at Work, Leading for Better Relationships and Results, I encountered many people who had not only tamed the email beast, they were crediting their email practices as an important part of their personal productivity and effectiveness regimen. They also credited their email process and their inbox as a stress reducer as opposed to a stress inducer.
Email seems like an easy enough concept: read it, respond if needed then file it or delete it. Why is it so troublesome for so many of us? Admittedly we all have our own relationship with email depending on the nature and demands of our work, our facility with file management and how ruthless we can be in eliminating unproductive tasks and messages. And oh yes there is a need for rigor and a bit of daily discipline and some of us are decidedly better at that than others. But significant progress with email is readily available to all of us, with minimal, but consistent investment of time and effort.
Communication happens mostly through email in many organizations and its benefits are numerous as researchers have shown. However, keeping up with email is no small task when according to a McKinsey Global Institute report found that 28% of a professional's work week is spent reading, composing or responding to email.
We've developed a number of problematic habits that by all accounts do not serve us well in relation to how we engage with email. Studies show people commonly checking email 11 times per hour, 84% of users keeping their email up and running in the background at all times and 2/3 of users using some form of stress inducing and highly distracting notifications. When you square that against research that shows that only 30% of received email requires action and 1/3 of email remains unread in people's inboxes it showcases too much time being spent on unproductive work
We've learned from people like Gloria Mark, a leading email scholar from the University of California Irvine together with colleagues from the Microsoft Research group and MIT in a study found that the “longer time spent on email the lower was perceived productivity and the higher the measured stress”.
The study goes on to say those who self schedule when to check email enjoy greater productivity and less stress than those who rely on notifications. Those dings, beeps and flashes fuel email’s addictive qualities and lessen our effectiveness while negatively impacting stress.
Those addictive qualities and how to counter them are outlined in the book Inbox Zero: How to Stop Checking Email and Start Finishing It by Ian Charnas. He, along with others like Merlin Mann and personal productivity wizard David Allen have all provided great advice on achieving Inbox Zero where your inbox is empty or nearly empty most of the time. Here’s how:
• “When an inbox is confused with a “to do” list, productivity suffers” according to Merlin Mann. Many people use their inbox as a highly inefficient staging areas where high priority or urgent actionable items, medium priority and low priority items including items that need to be trashed, co-exist in one massive stress inducing clump. It’s a recipe for missed deadlines, the constant stress and fear of missing something important and an inability to retrieve needed information. His advice: “delete, delegate, respond, defer (to a specific date and time) and do.”
• Email arrives mostly at 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM and 9:00 AM so many people design their daily “email check-ins” according to their schedule and when their inbox fills up. Some check 3-4 times a day around these key times, others every hour on the hour or half hour. The key to develop a process that works for you and your work that manages responsiveness, distractions, productivity and stress.
• Folders, filters and archiving will set you free! A little file management can go a long way. Most of our emails come from the same few number of sources who may deserve their own folders in your email system as does folders for reference material and other important matters. Keeping hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox and then using the search function is no way to store end retrieve valuable information. And email is a lousy place to keep documents. Important documents worth saving are best kept outside of email.
• David Allen’s 2 minute rule. The Getting Things Done author joins a chorus of personal productivity experts who urge us to deal with email (and other quick tasks) that will take less than two minutes right away within our allocated time to be dealing with our emails.
• Try beginning your day reviewing your calendar, project commitments and your dedicated action or to-list or priority setting system instead of the soul sucking email inbox as your welcome to a new work day.
• If you receive a large number of emails each day that require your attention then it warrants being a dedicated task with time allocated to the task and not a side of desk activity that you catch as catch can or start and finish your day with. The latter is a recipe for firefighting where priorities are dropped and a constant fear of missing something important prevails.
• Learn how. Each email system or client has mechanisms for filing, archiving and deleting massive amounts of emails. Both YouTube and LinkedIn Learning have helpful videos and courses to assist you in the initial effort of setting yourself up for success and then advice for keeping your system pristine over time with daily attention.
In spite of Increases in instant messaging, social networking and other collaborative tools, tech research company Radicati predicts the number of emails sent per day will grow from more than 280 billion in 2018 to almost 320 billion by 2021. Email isn’t going away.
Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Slack, the immensely popular workplace collaboration messaging platform has admitted as much and has said “ we’re working on better integration with email.” I interpret this as one of the leading proponents of not using email acknowledging how central email will remain and supports why we all need to develop the proficiency and discipline needed to tame the email beast.
The leading purpose for organizing our work is to diminish our cognitive load. A modicum of initial organisation of your inbox to enable folders and archiving, a daily email process that works for you and fits into your schedule and routine (that includes ruthless deleting) will eliminate the inbox’s sinister side effects. What awaits is the great feeling on being on top of your work.
I can attest, that having gone from well over 10,000 emails squatting in my inbox to 3-4 on any given day by diligently deleting, filing, filtering and archiving has a liberating quality well worth the daily effort that can make a huge difference your wellbeing and your effectiveness.