Email Miniseries: There is a Better Way

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The problem of email overload is multifaceted and extremely varied between and within individuals. A person with a full-time job probably faces different email challenges from even a part-time employee, and the nature of a person’s work will also factor into the equation of how much email is delivered to them on average in a day. The majority of us also have to deal with managing personal email accounts, which come with a whole separate set of challenges than those of the workplace. Although there are still some people who don’t have a personal email account (who I am starting to think are actually the smart ones), it is pretty uncommon, and probably looked at as being a little weird. Well, whoever said being weird was wrong?

Take Leo Babauta, for example. This man is one of my heroes. He went from being out shape, in debt, and a slave to his job, to being this zen guru who runs everyday, lives debt free, and creates his own work, running amazing, successful blogs with millions of followers of his thoughts on the simple way of life. He writes about simple email in his book The Power of Less. He is now to the point where he doesn’t even have an email account, but he still makes it in this world. Funny, huh?

I am not planning on giving up my email accounts anytime soon (although I am not convinced that would be the worst thing in the world), but I have come up with my own plan to manage the constant stream of thoughts and ideas that are delivered to me on a daily basis.

Take Back Control of the Day

When I found Julie Morgenstern’s book Never Check Email in the Morning, I was excited. Before reading this book I would start every workday immediately dealing with email, mostly because I didn’t know any better. Email in the workplace can be a mix of positive and negative communications, and there is no warning when a negative message is going to sail into your day, possibly ruining the whole thing before it even gets started.

I have developed my own personal relationship with my email inboxes that I can at least live with. I quickly scan my work emails first thing in the morning just to make sure there isn’t anything urgent sitting in there (which there almost never is), but I don’t make it my first priority to carefully read through and respond to everything immediately.

I then try to make it a point to do something from my “Reminders – Weekday” or “Rituals – Weekday” lists during the first hour of the workday, before I revisit my email inboxes. Email has the potential to totally swallow up a whole morning, leaving us feeling unproductive. It is far more efficient to use the sense of focus that accompanies the morning to actually accomplish something of value, placing your own tasks before the new requests of others that will inevitably still be waiting there an hour later. Also, I have found that in general the interruptions tend to be lowest during the first hour of the morning, making it an ideal time slot to get an important, non-urgent task crossed off the list.

After the first hour, then I will go back to my non-urgent emails and on an ideal day I would process the email inboxes to empty at that time. When I say process to empty, I do not mean just click through the “unread” emails. I mean physically remove the item from the inbox to its next stop, which varies based on the type of information it contains.

Decision Time

When it is time to process the email inbox, I try very hard to focus just on that as its own task, with the goal of processing it to empty. I still re-read emails upwards of five times, particularly when I am not being diligent about processing it in the moment. There are of course exceptions, such as when someone sends a confusing or complicated message that requires more time to digest. But in general, my purpose in processing my email inboxes to empty is so I can be sure I am not missing something that I might have read five days ago, and even more than that, so I don’t have to keep re-thinking about it every time I see the “read” email.

Even though it isn’t taking over my physical space as a stack of papers would, I feel the same way about emails as I do about a stack of papers on the counter: it is a collection of things that need to be dealt with and processed until the stack is cleared away. Until then, it is pulling my energy back to it, calling on me to deal with it. Not very zen!

I try my very best to deal with each email right away when I read it. I would say I am currently doing this about 75 or 80% or the time. It is a work in progress. Here are the options I have come to consider when deciding what to do with each email:

Delete: This is my favorite option. It only takes a second to do, and produces somewhat of a similar warm and fuzzy feeling as crossing an item off a task list. This is appropriate for unnecessary communications, such as a brochure for a conference in Alaska that I will not be attending.

Respond, then delete: Of course, the nature of email calls on us to respond from time to time. If I can quickly create a response in about five or ten minutes, I usually try to do it right then.

Send to task list: For more complex requests of my time that will require more thought than about ten minutes, I will add the item (sometimes the whole email) to my task list. To me, this is where an email with an associated task belongs, not sitting in the email inbox. It is tempting to leave this type of email in the inbox until I deal with it though, so this is probably the option that I have the most resistance to.

Send to reference file: The other type of email is reference material. Anything that you would want to refer back to someday is reference material. I used to spend way too much time trying to figure out how to categorize my emails into folders. No more! Now I send them directly to related notebooks in Evernote so everything I want to refer to is in one place. Tomorrow, I will go into more detail about how I do this.

Back to Managing Email

Once my first email processing session of the day is over with, then I get out of the email inbox and get back to working on other things that I have to get done from my task lists. On my “Rituals – Weekday” list, I have an item called “Daily – Process Email to Empty” and then in the body of the note I have a simple list of what I consider to be my ideal times of the day to process email, which for my work schedule are 9, 12, 3, and 430.

Since my workday hours at my job in the central time zone are 8 to 5, this gives me a chance to go through email after I have hopefully gotten something important done, and also allows me to have larger chunks of time throughout the day where I can manage tasks that I need to get done, sans constant incessant email checking. Pretty much every book I have read on productivity advises against reacting to email in the moment (unless it is a true emergency, which is rare). An immediate response is almost never warranted just because a thought popped into someone else’s head at that moment. That is what the telephone is for.

This is my ideal plan. Of course, there are days when I simply cannot keep up with everything and I cannot process all the emails to empty. There are also times when I catch myself checking my email more frequently than at my ideal time points, usually when I am procrastinating on getting more important things done.

There was a time not too long ago when my email inboxes swallowed up my happy little life. Unable to keep up with it all, I would attempt to process my queues on a Saturday, only to end up feeling deflated that I just spent my whole Saturday afternoon sifting through the constant flow of email communications that would only pile back up on again on Monday. I am so happy to now be able to say this is no longer the case. I am now in control of my email accounts, not the other way around.

Tomorrow’s post will conclude the email miniseries, with some tips on how to quickly send emails out of the inbox, or prevent them from even landing there in the first place. Namaste!

Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc

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