Are you frustrated that you can’t ever achieve inbox zero? Are you overwhelmed by the amount of time you dedicate to email every.single.day? Are you sick of the incessant ping of your inbox? Or maybe you’ve suffered from that post-holiday feeling of panic when you’re greeted by a bulging inbox upon your return to work? You’re not the only one.
Heavy inboxes compromise our productivity and also impact our wellbeing, with many employees reporting that they feel overloaded by the demands of email they experience at work. Not only do our email habits hamper our performance at work, but they can also have an adverse impact on our mental wellbeing and personal relationships, according to research1.
According to data obtained from Rescue Time, in 2018, the average knowledge worker spent only 2 hours and 48 minutes/day on ‘productive’ tasks (which equates to 14 hours and 8 minutes/week). 40% of knowledge workers never get more than 30 minutes straight of focused time2. One of the biggest threats to productive work and uninterrupted work time is email. The Rescue Time study found that an average of one hour was devoted to communication and scheduling each day3.
It’s rather ironic: the technology that was designed to expedite and support our capacity to communicate and improve our efficiency at work, email, has become the beast we cannot tame. Email was initially a tool to help us do our work, but it is now a source of frustration and distraction from our work. Research has confirmed what many employees bemoan- excessive email, is the second most common problem impacting productivity (second only to ‘wasteful meetings).
So why do we incessantly check our inboxes (even when on holidays)?
We have ancient (Paleolithic) brains operating in a high-tech world. Our brains have not evolved to cope with the demands that technology places on us. As a result, we react to the ping of our inbox much the same was as we would have reacted to the sound of a predator- our attention is captivated and our sympathetic nervous system is activated (fight or flight response). So just like we would in a tribal fire, if we received a tap on the shoulder, or heard someone call our name, or heard a strange or concerning sound, our attention would be captivated and diverted from the task at hand. In years gone by we had to immediately pay attention to the new input because it would have meant that danger was impending. Our brains haven’t evolved so much that we still consider the pings and vibrations that our inboxes give us, as a warning signal
As humans we’re also hard-wired for relational connection- we need social connection. Given that we’re biologically wired to connect, we feel compelled to constantly be checking our email because we crave that sense of connection and belonging (this also explains our social media habits).
Simple Strategies to Tame Your Inbox:
// Set boundaries– despite what many employees and executives think, we don’t need to be tethered to our inboxes around the clock. Establish your own personal and professional boundaries around when you’ll check email. Perhaps it’s once in the morning and once in the afternoon, or maybe you find it better to check it at three scheduled times each day. A study from the University of British Columbia found that when people check their email just three times per day, their stress levels decreased significantly12.
Bonus tip– your email signature could specify how frequently you check and respond to email, so people have realistic expectations about your anticipated response.
// Engineer your inbox according to your energy and focus- checking and responding to email ideally should be performed during your less optimal performance times of the day. Yet, many of us scan our inboxes upon waking up, or on the commute to work, or first thing when we sit at our desk. If you’re a ‘lark’ (I’ll write more soon on how to determine your chronotypes and how they impact your productivity), checking in the mid-afternoon or at lunchtime may be the best time for you, as you’ve reserved the morning for your deep work. By contrast, if you’re an ‘owl’, checking email in the morning or early afternoon may be best for you, to ensure that the night is available for uninterrupted deep work.
// Block and batch– don’t dedicate your most productive hours to email. Email rarely moves the needle on important tasks and is often the demands of other people. As knowledge workers, we need to protect what Paul Graham calls ‘maker’ time. Instead of checking emails in our most productive times, we should schedule it during what Graham calls ‘manager’ time. If you look at your emails in one batch, rather than snacking on them intermittently throughout the day, you feel less stressed and more productive, as you can better prioritise and categorise your responses- you can see if this is urgent and requiring an urgent response. If you look at a chunk of 30 emails you can more easily make decisions as to what’s critical and important. If you look at email in a notification fashion, everything feels important and urgent.
// Schedule and slay– set aside time in your calendar each day for email, as a recurring task and then stick to the limit and work efficiently to clear, respond or organise your inbox. As Parkinson’s Law suggests work expands to fill the time available for its completion. So if we don’t apply time limits to our inboxes, then we can spend far too much time in them. Instead, prescribe and stick to a designated time limit and work like a ninja to meet your deadline.
// Do not disturb– Having an open and ongoing inbox depletes our cognitive resources. Switching between tasks constantly derails our performance. Although it seems quite benign, the pings and alerts from incoming emails impede with not only our capacity to focus, but also increases the time it takes us to complete tasks and can also increase error rates (plus a whole lot of changes in the brain that impedes our performance). A study from the University of California quantified the costs of such distractions, by exploring the ‘resumption lag’. They found that the average adult takes 23 minutes to resume their concentration and focus after they’ve been interrupted.
// Turn off alerts and notifications– having email pings constantly hum in the background whilst you’re doing important work (or as Cal Newport calls it ‘deep work’) compromises your performance. It’s no accident that your unread email icon is red, as it triggers a sense of urgency (red is typically an emergency or warning colour that triggers a sense of panic). That’s one of the ways that technology has been intentionally designed to prey on our psychological vulnerabilities- alerts and notifications make us feel as though everything is urgent and important. And that’s simply not the case (remember, we have primitive brains operating in a high-tech world). When we react constantly to email, as opposed to responding at set times, we’re prioritising someone else’s agenda ahead of our own.
// Set filters– depending on your email provider you can set filters to organise emails according to specified criteria. For example, with Apple Mail you can set VIPs to receive SMS alerts that you have received an email from one of your identified VIPs (maybe it’s a client you’re working with, your boss, or a media outlet who require timely responses).
// Remove email from your phone– having the ping of your inbox running constantly when you’re not working can cause unnecessary stress. It prevents us from being truly present in the moment. So yes, even though we can be at our kid’s soccer game, if we’re seeing email alerts pop up, we can be robbed of being ‘at’ the soccer game. Even if you choose not to respond the moment the email arrives on your device, just knowing the email is awaiting for your response may cause unnecessary stress. Open loops can eat at our attention and can rob us of micro-moments with family and friends.
// Use an auto-responder– setting clear expectations as to when people can expect a reply from you, can benefit both yourself and the receiver. I vary mine and try to make them entertaining or educational. Ironically, this can add to the email cycle (something I’ll address later), but it definitely helps to reduce the number of “Did you see my previous email…” emails.
Here is an example I’ve previously used:
// Set canned responses– save time writing the same or similar email responses, by saving your responses as a template. Depending on your email provider, you can sometimes save these templates as a canned response. Always make sure you personalise these emails.
// Pick up the phone– avoid using email to relay lengthy, emotional or complicated information that could be better delivered over the phone. We can get caught in unnecessary email loops that could be easily avoided by speaking directly to people.
// Schedule your outbox– use an email scheduling tool like Boomerang or delayed delivery if you use Outlook to schedule your outbox. This enables you to have some control over when you’re likely to receive replies. For example, don’t send a flurry of emails in the late afternoon, as this may increase the likelihood that you’ll receive a reply during the night (which you may feel obligated to reply to).
//Unsubscribe- do a spring-clean of your inbox and unsubscribe from unnecessary emails you’ve subscribed to.
// Don’t be duped– email can often be ‘busy’, shallow work. Whilst it is often important work, it is not always essential and doesn’t always move the needle on important projects or tasks. Many employees use email as a gauge or as an overt measure to show that they’re ‘working’ (especially if they have flexible work arrangements). We falsely assume that if someone replies to us instantly then they must be productive, but that’s not true. In fact, if they’re forever in their inbox, they’re not spending sufficient time on deep work. As Cal Newport suggests, we need to be careful we don’t use busy-ness as a proxy for productivity.
Some people believe that other communication tools like Slack and Yammer are the solution to taming our inboxes. That’s not the case either (but that’s a post for another day).
We need to tame our tech habits, so that we’re a master of the media and not a slave to the screen.
I’m passionate about sharing practical ways to tame our tech habits (based on science) to boost both employee wellbeing and productivity. This is a topic I explore in both my Lunch and Learn seminars and in my Taming Your Tech Habits Masterclass.
6 Glei, J.K., 2016. Unsubscribe: How to kill email anxiety, avoid distractions, and get real work done. PublicAffairs