Managing email — so it doesn’t manage you

The following post by Tim Huebsch can be found on Leadership and Community, a collaborative community blog focused on providing awareness on leadership and community insights in the Twin Cities.

Email as a business communication tool has taken the world by storm over the last decade. During that time, it has continuously encroached on more and more of our daily life; now, for many, the first thing they do when they wake up and the last thing they do before going to sleep is power up their smart phones to see what emails have arrived.

The constant emailing helps us keep connected to the pulse of work, but in many respects leads to an increased level of stress. Here are three tips for email management (some easier than others) that I have personally adopted and that have made a huge difference.

1. Turn off the “new mail” alert indicator

You know what I mean, that little icon in the system tray that lets you know you have unopened mail, or the even more noticeable “New Email Notification” popup in Outlook that includes a preview of the message.

You might feel this is useful, but take a second to think about it. Every time you see that alert, your mind immediately starts to think, “I just received something — I wonder what it is?” In a lot of ways it’s like getting a birthday gift — you’re compelled to stop what you’re working on and open each new email as it arrives.

These interruptions may seem like they last only a second, but research shows that these little distractions disrupt your focus. As a result, it can take five minutes to get back to where your mind was before the interruption.

Action step — Turn off the indicator for a week and see if you miss the interruption. This is the simplest thing you can do to improve your productivity.

2. Check your email only three times a day

This might sound impossible, but after initially trying it for a few days, it has become a standard routine for me. I now check all my email (business and personal accounts) at 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and my business email right after lunch. Outside of those times, I have my email closed on my computer.

It’s amazing what this has done for my productivity — it allows me to focus on the most important task without getting sucked into the latest news.

The biggest concern that I hear from people regarding this step is that they need to respond immediately to business emails. My question for them is: Does responding within minutes of receiving an email really mean life or death?

Unless your main job is to respond immediately to customer service requests, I would argue that there’s no need to respond instantly. Contacts can call you by phone if they need to reach you immediately. Just let people know you check your email only at certain times of day and they will adjust accordingly.

Action step — For the next week, set three times during the day to read and respond to emails and turn off the program in between. You’ll go through mild withdrawal at first, but that will lessen with time.

3. Empty your inbox at least once a day

I realize this sounds impossible, but with focused effort it is possible. Once you reach zero email and have established a routine to maintain an empty inbox, you will be amazed.

A slowdown occurs when you read an email and then let it sit in the inbox; you end up re-reading the same message three to five times (on average) before acting on it.

As soon as I read an email, I ask myself, “What is the next thing I have to do with this message?” It could be filing it, asking a clarifying question, scheduling time to work on it or deleting it. Any one of these four options will result in moving the message out of my inbox.

This tip is the most difficult to carry out, but the peace of mind it brings is amazing. You no longer have to worry about what is buried in your inbox — what you may be missing or may still need to respond to.

Even if you are not able to get to zero email right away, the small step of asking yourself what the next step is in dealing with each message will improve your productivity.

Action step — During the next week, whenever a new message arrives, ask yourself what the next step is in dealing with that message. This will keep your inbox from filling up any more and will hopefully give you more time to take care of some of the messages already in your inbox.

These are just some of the tips that have really helped me improve my productivity and prevent email from controlling my life. For more insight, I’d highly recommend is “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. It’s a fantastic read and has many additional tips to improve your productivity.

Tim Huebsch is a “Community Dot Connector” who has served in leadership roles with organizations throughout the Twin Cities and across the nation. His experiences and more details can be found on his website or on Leadership and Community, where he is a regular contributor.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Guy Wyers on 04/23/2011 - 05:59 am.

    Great tips.
    It is indeed how much difference an approach like GTD can make. Keeping your inbox empty is also a key challenge as you correctly pointed out. For that purpose we have created Tagwolf (www.tagwolf.com). Tagwolf is an intelligent email filing add-in for Microsoft Outlook that analyses each email, proposes the most likely folder for it and files the email with a single click.

  2. Submitted by Bradley Johnson on 04/25/2011 - 10:51 am.

    Excellent read!
    Some really good steps. I plan to try these starting today.

    Being someone who is on the road much of the time, this will also help level set with my clients that I am not ignoring them, but helping ensure I am attending to the tasks that they expect from me.

    Great call outs!

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