Feb 3, 2017
Doing emails feel like work, but email not work. Email is meta-work: task is meant to enable further productivity. However, email often steals away valuable time instead. Getting stuck on the email hamster wheel have negative impacts like:
This last point is important. I’ve often found myself “catching-up on emails” on weekends, and while I felt like productivity, the only things that weekend emailing produced were more weekend emails. Coworkers see your emails on the weekends, respond, and just like that, you have more emails. It’s a vicious cycle of meta-work.
I’m going to miss an important email from my boss.
Someone is going reply to a mass email chain with an idea before I can.
Coworkers are going to think I’m lazy.
These among many other (substantiated and unsubstantiated) fears are probably popping up as you read. Through personal experience, I was able to get off that hamster wheel safely without any of the fears above manifesting.
Follow the 5 steps to email bliss (make sure you take all 5 steps; many people I have spoken to fail because they only take step 3).
This is the first and most critical step: tell your manager, team members, and other immediate coworkers that you will be only be checking emails at specific times. The key here is to make sure they understand that even though you aren’t on emails, you are still responsive and available. To do this, I had set the following expectations:
This series of escalation steps made it clear to everyone around me that I am still readily available. However, these expectations require that everyone thinks critically about priorities when trying to figure how best to reach me.
Of course, if you aren’t already, you will have to be extra responsive via IM or text.
The key to this step is to remove all temptations to go into your inbox rabbit hole. There are about a thousand triggers built into our email applications that want you to check them impulsively. Here are some key actions everyone should take immediately:
To further ensure you’re setting yourself up for success, try these progressively intense suggestions and tactics:
Feel free to get creative with whatever can help tilt the scale in your favor. If you’re in a role where quick response to inbound messages is a key metric (e.g. consulting, sales, customer service, BD, account management), consider setting up filters or other systems that parse out the valuable signals from the noise of your inbox.
This is the obvious step, though most people jump right to this step without setting up some of the systems above.
For me, checking about 2–3 times during the day worked really well — you can adjust up or down according to the cadence of your role, team, or company. My three time slots were:
As you may notice, these are dynamic blocks that work around my schedule. Having a bit of flexibility means you are less likely to break the habit, similar to having a cheat day during a diet.
An added bonus to setting time aside for emails: you will be less compelled to check your emails during off hours, whether it be in the evening at home or in bed first thing in the morning.
Once I got into a cadence of specific time slots, I found myself optimizing the effectiveness of each time slot based on my energy level throughout the day. For example:
Of course, there is always going to be that occasional email that goes into bucket F (i.e. the f*ck bucket) but having a robust system means you can recover from any irregularities quickly without skipping a beat.
Once you’ve figured out the cadence and systems that work for you, you can continue to make your process more efficient since the ultimate goal is to waste less time on emails (i.e. effectiveness before efficiency).
Here are some examples of clever apps and UX that I have started to leverage over time:
The more momentum is on your hamster wheel, the harder it will be to get off safely. Lots of pressure from different directions may be used to justify staying on the wheel just a bit longer.
To enable a safe dismount from the hamster wheel, you may need a substantial catalyst, like a set deadline to get away from day-to-day work for a bit. For me, this happened in the form of a 2-week off-the-grid vacation I had been planning for months.
Putting these habits in place over a few weeks of experimentation yielded a transformative experience for me and my career. Better email habits earned me the necessary room to prioritize and think critically during my work day. I was about to resolve problems and generate insights at a far greater frequency and higher quality than before.
I also found that a good chuck of email threads would resolve themselves even without my input.
Most importantly, the lesson that stuck with me most: things are simply not as urgent as they seem, and it takes a surprising amount of distance to see that.
Now imagine if an entire team or organization adapted these email habits — it would have a multiplier effect on productivity because everyone would be generating and responding to fewer unnecessary emails. Once something like this becomes the organization norm, a team focus everyone’s energy on much larger and more valuable problems.
At the most fundamental level, email is a method of communication (albeit an ineffective and inefficient medium). For every benefit realized by better email habits, there are probably as many underlying organizational communication issues highlighted by those habits. I was lucky enough to be in a highly functional organization that provided a safe landing from the hamster wheel. However, many bad email habits can be attributed to root causes such as:
Even better email habits will not fix the organizational or cultural issues above, but it will enable to see and address the underlying issues.
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