How to manage your email so it doesn’t manage you

Isn’t it ironic how “time saving” devices — like email — end up robbing us of our productivity? Read on to learn how to manage your email.

I don’t really believe in new year’s resolutions, but I understand the I’m-going-to-do-better-this-year feeling that washes over many of us when the calendar moves to Jan. 1. It feels like a blank slate and a fresh start merged in one delightful package. Anything seems possible.

Until, perhaps, we look at our email. Did you know that the average worker receives about 620 emails each week, taking 11 hours of their time? Worse, they need 23 minutes to get back to work after any interruption. (And you thought checking whether the VP spelled his name John or Jon was going to take just 30 seconds!)

I’ve probably been more sensitive than others to the time cost because I get more email than the average person — about 300 a day. As a result, I’ve put management systems in place to try to protect myself from distraction. But nothing compares with the effectiveness of my latest strategy.

I now hide my email to keep it out of sight.

(For a few weeks, I even kept my email program turned off but this proved to be a time-consuming nuisance whenever I needed to send an email, which is frequently. The program would take too long to start up and my messages wouldn’t filter properly when the program was turned off — more on filters in a moment.)

If you want to make a dramatic improvement to your working life for 2019, I suggest you focus on getting your email under control. Here’s how to do that:

Turn off all notifications

You don’t want any bells that ring or horns that beep when an email arrives. Turn off all sounds. You also don’t want the annoying little numbered notification that perches on the top right-hand corner of your email icon telling you how many emails are awaiting your eyeballs. Turn off all visual displays. Especially, turn off the little teaser that whooshes into the top right hand corner of your monitor giving you the name of the email sender and the subject line. Turn it off! If I were more technically savvy, I’d know how to turn off all this stuff myself. Instead, I had my IT guy do it for me. If you’re more of a self-starter, consult Dr. Google and figure out how to do it yourself.

Check email only at specific times of day

Many of us have become addicted to the squirt of dopamine our brains receive whenever we read an interesting email. The British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell has described dopamine as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules,” but basically it’s a brain chemical that plays a major role in reward-motivated behaviour. And email makes this chemical even more enticing because it bestows the rewards so intermittently. (The best way to reinforce a behaviour is to give a reward randomly.)

Instead of leaving your rewards to “chance” (and, what are the honest odds that your email is going to reward you with something truly delicious?), give yourself rewards for checking your email only at specific times of day. I now check email first thing in the morning, at lunchtime and at the end of the day. You might consider the analogy of eating three square meals vs. snacking.

If you have a boss who’s concerned about his or her inability to reach you quickly enough, suggest that they text or call you instead. 

Don’t just check your email, process it

The difference between checking and processing is profound. Instead of cherry-picking the emails that interest you (or that appear to be urgent), go through the list in chronological order and deal with each of them. You can deal with them in one of four ways:

Delete: As many as 30 percent of your emails likely fall into this category.  Don’t be ashamed or worried about deleting. (Although if you’re truly concerned, then archive it so it’s out of your inbox but still in your email system for future reference.)

Delegate: If you can give the job to someone else, do so. Just remember to set a reminder in your calendar or to do list to follow up on the appropriate date to make sure the person did the job. If you’re a solopreneur, consider whether you can hire someone to do the job for you.

Archive: There will be some emails you need to save but that’s ALL you have to do with them. No need to reply! Put them in the right folder and forget about them (until you need to refer to them.) 

Act/Reply: This is the hardest, most time-consuming part of email processing but if you “batch” the work (do it all at once, only at specific times of day) you should be able to get into a rhythm that will make the job faster. Reply briefly, only to those emails requiring a response. And if you need to DO something as a result of the email, then schedule it in your calendar. Don’t do any of the tasks right away (unless you know they will take you less than two minutes.) Do them at a time that will be convenient for you. Finally, don’t be afraid to say ‘no.’ Something about email makes us more likely to agree to work we just don’t have the time to do. Instead, fully understand what you are undertaking — and be certain you have the time — before you agree to do it.

Don’t aspire to inbox-zero 

I know there’s a certain sexiness to the idea of inbox-zero. (And it’s the kind of idea that appeals especially around the time of new year’s resolutions.) Forget it! The ideal is not realistic. And it’s not smart. You can’t control how many emails you receive each day so if you focus on in-box zero, you’re allowing other people to dictate your productivity. Instead, develop a more flexible goal. Mine is to have no more than about 15 messages in my inbox at any given time.

Stop checking email on your phone 

It’s not only hard to type with your thumbs, it’s also difficult to process email properly when you don’t have easy access to your calendar and your files. Don’t believe you’re so important that you need to check emails dozens of times each day. Instead, stick with your processing schedule. If anyone needs to reach you urgently, ask them to text you, instead. 

Take steps to make future email processing faster and easier

  • I like to filter a lot of emails I need for reference but don’t need to read right away. To do the same, go into your email program’s “Preferences” folder and set up rules for filtering certain specific emails as well. You can set the rules based by the sender, subject line or a list of other categories. (For example, I put any newsletters I receive into a file called “Newsletters”.) If you find this concept confusing, get an IT person to help you. It’s really worth the effort.
  • Unsubscribe to any newsletters you no longer read or enjoy. I find whenever I buy anything online, I’m automatically subscribed to a variety of newsletters that hold no ongoing interest for me. So, I unsubscribe. And, over time, I’ve subscribed to a variety of blog-based newsletters. After a few weeks or months, I no longer find these newsletters interesting or useful to me, so I unsubscribe. Yes, this suggestion applies to THIS email as well. If you don’t find Power Writing useful, unsubscribe. My feelings won’t be hurt and your life will be better.
  • If you’re looking for a good book on how to handle email, I recommend The Email Warrior by Ann Gomez. It’s a quick read and it will give you actionable steps to lessen the burden of email on your life.
  • If you find you frequently send similarly-worded emails, create templates you can use to “fill in the blanks” and slightly personalize the responses. I do this all the time using Text Expander an inexpensive piece of software that saves me much time and effort.
  • Give yourself a time limit. We all work faster when we’re facing a clock. Use the pomodoro technique, complete with a ticking clock, to help give yourself a sense of urgency when dealing with your email. If you don’t finish within the deadline, leave it for another day.

Email is a remarkable tool  — as indeed are TVs and cellphones — but all three things create other problems in our lives. We need to manage them so they don’t manage us.

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My most recent video podcast aimed to help people learn how to make time for writing. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel.  If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you manage your email? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Kelly Hendrickson, the winner of this month’s book prize, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben for a Dec. 20/18 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of Business Writing and Communication, by Kenneth W. Davis. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.