I have always received a plethora of emails and find that it can be a challenge to keep up sometimes. There are urgent emails, not so urgent, good to know, interesting, junk, and too much spam! Over the years I have come up with systems for managing my email and am forever tweaking my system. At the time of this writing, I have been telecommuting for a few months and it seems that there is even more email than before. To reach me now at work you can call me, text me. send me an instant message, see me in a virtual meeting, or email. You will no longer pass me in the hallway or stop by my office for a moment. Much of what was in-person contact is now going to email.
As an introvert, email is sometimes a great way to communicate. I can take the time I need to think about and compose my thoughts and my email. It is also a record of the discussion that can be retrieved later. However, I am now getting more emails than ever and it can be a bit much at times.
Time chunking versus multitasking
As responding to emails is an important part of work, you may consider “time chunking” where you set chunks of time to work and then periodically set times just to work through your email. Otherwise, if you are paying attention to every email that comes in you may be interrupted every minute! I know people that are very proud of their ability to multitask, but I find that I work best and am most efficient when I can focus on one thing at a time. The truth is that everyone functions better with less multitasking. We can truly only pay attention to one thing at a time.
According to John Medina in Brain Rules:
“Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, but he or she also makes up to 50 percent more errors.”
Instead of multitasking, Medina calls it “task-switching.” Since people can only have one thought at a time, in order to attempt to do multiple things at the same time, they switch back and forth between thoughts. Some people are better at task-switching than others, but no one actually has the ability to think about more than one thing at a time. So focusing on one thing at a time by chunking your time to work on certain things and then other time to work on email can be far more efficient.
So what would time chunking and email look like for you? Should you check and sort your email every hour? Or could you get away with doing this a couple of times a day. Of course, if you are in a customer service job, your expectations may require very frequent or even constant responses to email.
Time chunking may require that we change the culture and expectations of those around us. Have you ever had someone pop into your office and ask “did you get my email?” when they sent it 30 seconds ago? It’s as if you should be watching your email every second. Again, this can be a very inefficient way to get anything done. How about send me the email and if it is urgent you could also (or instead) instant message, text, or call me. And please consider what is really an emergency.
As you take time in chunks it is important to take time to process all of your emails. Often this is called “inbox zero.” Do you try to work out of a full inbox? Do you scroll endlessly and hunt for important emails? This doesn’t work well for me and often things get missed when I try to work this way. I need to take the time to bring my inbox to zero. I find David Allen’s methods helpful for either organizing my to-do list or my emails as he outlines in Getting Things Done.
For each email, I need to decide if it is actionable. If no, then do one of the following: either trash it, add it to a someday/maybe list, or store it as reference material.
If it is actionable, then I need to decide if I should do it now. Allen has a rule that if it can be done in two minutes or less, then do it now. Or you can delegate it and put it on a waiting for list for later follow up. Or you can defer it and decide when you will work on it.
Checking my email at regular intervals has proven to be a much more efficient way to do things. If I let it all pile up in my inbox, important items might be lost between all of the spam and non-essential emails. Also, when you have brought your inbox to zero it can be very satisfying to see the “no new mail” message.
After hours expectations
I do think we all may be a little too accessible by email. It is easy to find and reach out to just about anyone and at any time. Do you respond to emails at any time of the day? What is expected of you at work? In general, I am not answering emails once I leave work for the day. Currently, I am telecommuting, so leaving work may just be switching rooms in the house. But once I leave work I want to now be present with my family or whatever it is that I am doing. I shouldn’t try to have a conversation with my daughter while I am trying to answer a work email after I have left for the day. This can be a challenge for the entrepreneur. When does work end? Sometimes it may never end as you are taking care of customers and pursuing new business. It is still important to set some boundaries, so you can be fully present when you are engaged in other things.
I think it is amazing that I can fully access my emails and just about everything for work on my phone. However, I do not turn on my work email notifications on my phone, as it causes way too much distraction all day long. I normally don’t check my work emails after I have left for the day unless there is a good reason. Just as above, if you work with me and you have an emergency after work hours, please call or text me. Same when I am on vacation. Don’t count on me checking my emails. I may check them just to stay caught up, but if it’s urgent, I tell people to call or text.
I work late or on weekends every so often to get caught up or get something important done. I try not to make this a habit, but it happens. There have been times where I sent an email to a colleague late at night or on a Saturday, not expecting a response until the next day or the beginning of the week. Too often I would get a response right away and while I was appreciative, I felt guilty for the person working after hours. Recently, I started using the scheduling feature in Gmail. There is a down arrow on the “send” button which gives the option to “schedule send.” And you can pick any time that you want to send it. Often I schedule for first thing in the morning, So even if I make the choice to work after hours, I do not need to make someone else feel that they need to work after hours too.
Email is a great way to communicate, but if you are not careful it can be overwhelming and you can fall behind. Find which organization strategies work for you and have email be an important part of your day, but not the focus of your day.