Taming The Beast – Making E-mail Work For You – Part 1 of 3

Modern Desktop


When I first began penning this article, I thought it would be a quick missive on the need for a change of perspective on e-mail, as well as some suggestions to make our use of this powerful tool more effective.  About half way through writing it, though, it became obvious that there was much more to be said. 

The result is this three-part series with a more in-depth discussion about the roots of the e-mail problem and the substantiation for the suggestions presented.  It is my hope that readers find some new insights into how we can remodel our relationship with e-mail and its sister technologies – texting and posting. 

In the end, these tools are here to stay and it is our choice about how we want to integrate them into our lives. Using e-mail productively can make very good use of our time – the only truly important non-renewal resource we have.

Setting the Stage

Modern communications technologies – e-mail, texting, status updating and posts – have resulted in a sea change in the manner and frequency in which we communicate with each other.  Whether you are using a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a new-fangled tablet computer (think iPad), or a smartphone, chances are you are actually communicating an order of magnitude more often today than even five years ago. 

The explosion of global commerce and distributed collaboration are just two of the benefits directly associated with these new technologies.  But with these benefits comes a cost – the cost of stress, tension and anxiety associated with the always-on world.  Nowhere is that cost seen more directly than in our love-hate relationship with e-mail.  People love the ability to dash off a quick missive of instruction or information.  However, these same people hate the Pavlovian response they experience every time a new e-mail hits their inbox. 

The underlying cause for this state of affairs is a lack of understanding – at a fundamental level – of how to leverage e-mail as a tool without becoming enslaved to it.  This series of articles focuses on resetting the perspective we need about e-mail and offers some suggestions on how to better apply the tool to the work-a-day world.  The return on investment for considering this “new” perspective and applying the tips is that we will get more done and experience a greater sense of control over our work and life.  (Note, many of these concepts and tips will apply to other forms of electronic communication, but they are specifically geared to e-mail as it’s the most ubiquitous at this time.)

E-mail is Just Mail Done Differently

Somewhere early on in the evolution of e-mail we lost sight of its fundamental character – it’s just mail done differently!  At the root of all the problems surrounding our use and anxiety about e-mail is this simple fact.  Twenty years ago we sent letters and other forms of mail to people.  Today we send them e-mails, sometimes with attachments.  The only real difference is the delivery mechanism, but the underlying content is the same.  Even if we look at the expanded role of e-mail – to issue instructions or gather status updates – we see that many of those efforts were conducted prior to e-mail using other forms of communication, such as memos.  When you strip away all that appears new about e-mail, you’ll see that it’s just a faster asynchronous communication channel.  Simply stated, it allows us to do the same things we’ve always done only faster.

But look at the behavior changes we have undergone!  People have buzzes and beeps and all manner of alerts to notify them every single time a new message arrives!  Many (most?) people become anxious if they haven’t checked their e-mail account(s) in the last 30 minutes.  Some begin to panic if they haven’t received an e-mail in the last 30 minutes – sending themselves test messages just to insure the servers are up and running! 

I call these behaviors Pavlovian Twitches and they’re not pretty.  This hyper-focus on e-mail and our need to view and respond to them makes people unnecessarily stressed out and often grumpy.  We have all been witness to another person’s pre-occupation with e-mail – be it across the desk or across the dinner table.  More painful, though, is the knowledge that most of us have been that person.  Regaining a sense of command over this medium will not only increase your actual productivity (versus activity), it will reduce your anxiety and stress levels at work and at home.

Changing Perspectives

If we can agree that e-mail is just another form of asynchronous communication that has essentially increased the speed of communication, we can ask whether our management of e-mail is effective.  My experience has been that most people are notified (on their computers and smartphones) every time a new message arrives.  My experience is also that most people react to a new message alert by checking at least the From and Subject lines before (a) turning back to what they were doing or (b) immediately switching over to the work on the subject of that e-mail via Reply or otherwise.  Essentially, we are dealing with each individual message when it arrives (or as soon after it arrives as possible).

Let’s now look at how we handle our physical mail.  When our snail mail arrives at our desk, we get out our letter opener and start processing the pile in front of us.  We open each piece of mail, identify what it is and sort it accordingly (Trash, Filing, Action, etc.).  We process the entire stack at once before turning to the next thing we need to do – which may have arrived in that batch of mail or may have already been on our to-do list.  What we DO NOT do is open up one piece of mail, deal with it until completion, then come back to our mail and open the next item!

Opening and reacting to each piece of physical mail individually seems patently absurd, but that is exactly what we do with our e-mail all day long.  The question, of course, is why do we do that?  The only answer I’ve ever heard (and it comes in myriad versions) is, “Because I have to” or its cousin, “Because I can.”  And, as anyone who’s ever taken a good leadership course knows, just because you can (or have to), doesn’t mean you should!  Don’t get me wrong, we need to process our e-mail and we need to be responsive.  What I’m challenging here is how we’ve been doing it.  Here are two inter-related suggestions that will help you remain more focused on the tasks of the day while still effectively and responsively managing your e-mail.

Turn Your New Message Alert(s) Off

Productivity is about focus. The more focused you are, the more you’ll get done.  This is self-evident.  Yet we allow literally hundreds of new message alerts to interrupt us throughout the day!  This slices and dices our focus, which decreases our productivity.  The pings, rings and buzzes also heighten our sense of anxiety, which (that’s right!) further reduces our focus.  These self-inflicted interruptions are just not necessary.  Moreover, instead of having the intended consequence – of making us more responsive and productive – they are having the opposite effect – making us less productive and more stressed out.

The first suggestion, then, is to turn off all new message alerts wherever they may exist – computer e-mail software, smartphones, etc.  This will eliminate hours of distraction every year.  Here’s an example that proves it.

I was working with a client one day, setting up her Microsoft Outlook program to be a little more efficient.  I asked her to click View.  Just as she directed her mouse to do so – Ping/Flash – up came a new e-mail alert.  I watched her head turn away from what we were doing, glance down at the new message alert, process what it said, then look back up at the menu bar, re-process the instruction I had given her and click View.  The entire distraction took four seconds.  Four seconds where nothing got done – activity with no corresponding productivity. 

Let’s assume for the purposes of this example that this client gets 55 e-mails a day, the average for corporate employees.  That means she is spending 220 seconds each day distracted by new message alerts.  Two hundred and twenty seconds equates to about 3.5 minutes a day.  People work about 240 days a year (after accounting for vacation and holidays).  That means this client loses 14 hours (or about two working days!) a year just glancing down at new emails.  Imagine how much more in command of your workload you’d feel if you could use harness those 14 hours to actually get work done.  You’d have two additional days of work off your desk right now!

Batch Process Your E-mail – As Often As Necessary

“But I have to check my email!” you’re saying to yourself.  Of course you do, but why not do it in batches like you do your physical mail.  You probably need to do it more than once per day, maybe even more than once per hour.  However, the lesson Henry Ford taught us over 100 years ago still applies:  batch processing a task is more productive than serial processing it.  The great thing about e-mail is that it all collects in one place (per e-mail account).  That way, you only have to check it periodically to deal with what’s arrived there since the last time you looked.

How often you check your inbox depends on the amount of e-mail you receive in a day.  Some people can go as long as an hour – an hour! – without checking.  It’s almost like they’re in a meeting or something.  But seriously, anywhere from 20-minute to 60-minute intervals should do to keep you abreast of the demands of the day and responsive to those with whom you communicate.  Once you’ve reviewed a batch of e-mails, you can fold them into your prioritized list of things to do, and get back to work on that list.

Caution: you will have a tendency to start “working” on an e-mail during the batch processing behavior.  This is a trap for the unwary.  The point of batch processing is to move through the entire list of unread mail BEFORE making any decisions to act on any one e-mail in the list.  You can’t make an intelligent decision on what’s most important until you’ve see everything in the batch and reviewed the batch in context of your existing priorities.

Starting Afresh and Beginning Anew

Step back from your e-mail and texts and posts and you’ll find that they are each communication tools, electronic forms of their predecessors the letter, the memo, and the message slip.  Looking at each of these modern innovations in light of their function and their relationship with the communication tools they enhance or replace gives you the opportunity to put them in perspective.  Once they are in perspective you can realign your relationship with them to utilize them as tools instead of being enslaved to them like Pavlov’s dogs were to the bell.

The first two productivity suggestions make sense in this context.  Turning of your new message alert(s) and processing your e-mail in batches allows you to (a) remain focused on the task at hand without unnecessary interruption and (b) efficiently and effectively process all the inputs you are receiving each day, folding all the new tasks being received into the existing list.  Applying these two tips in concert will start you on the path to regaining command of your day, getting more done, and enjoying your work and life more.

Next Up:  Using the Better Mouse Trap – Single Subject E-mails and Substantive Subject Lines

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