Overcoming the Email Blues
(Published January 3, 2018 – ALA Learning Exchange Newsletter)
What is the worst thing about coming back to work after a vacation? In my informal polling, most participants claim that the thing they dread most is opening up their email to face that huge backlog of messages. Email is a vital work tool where more and more of our daily transactionional work is done. Unfortunately, it is often the biggest impediment to productive work due to mismanagement of the high volumes of messages that flow into it. However, with the application of a few simple best practices the stress of email management can be vanquished.
Let’s start with a basic premise. The purpose of your inbox is to alert you when new content arrives. Most people recognize that they need to empty out their USPS mailbox every day or else the postal carrier will stop delivering. Yet many people use their email inbox as a storage location for a wide variety of actionable and non-actionable items. This means that every time they open their inbox everything has to be scanned in order it to identify new content and to get reacquainted with the backlog. This is draining and inefficient. The best way to use your inbox is to clear it out completely every 24-48 hours. This can seem an impossible task if you don’t know where to store the messages in order to find them later.
Essentially, there are only five things you can do with an email. The first option is to trash it. Why keep garbage around if you don’t have to? The second option is to save it as reference material for potential use later. For this, you can either create one folder called “Reference” to store all your saved messages, or optionally a small set of additional folders to store email from your major correspondents (i.e. boss, direct reports, section colleagues, etc.). The third option is for email that has no action now, but may have one later. These are known as “someday/maybes”, “dreams”, “non-active projects” or “read/review”. An example would be an advertisement for a workshop. You might want to attend the workshop one day, just not right now. Stash the message in the “someday/maybe” folder for review at a later date when you are ready to attend. The forth option for email are the “waiting fors”. These are items that you are waiting for a response from someone else before you can take your next action. Put the email in a “waiting for” folder as a reminder to bug the person later if they don’t get back to you. The fifth option is reserved for actionable items. These are messages you have to respond to, but are not ready to do so immediately Store them in an “action” folder to work on when time becomes available.
There is often a temptation to check email frequently in case something important arrives. To this end many people set up notification alerts. However, do we really need them? Behavioral economist Dan Ariely did an informal survey on his blog (danariely.com) about email habits. Participants in his study indicated that out of all the email that arrived in their inbox, only 11% of it warranted immediate attention. Basically, just 1 in 10 messages that arrived in participant’s inboxes were worthy of quick action. The rest could wait for hours or days and 24% could be trashed immediately. The implication is that notification alerts probably hinder your productivity more than they help. So feel free to turn them off and only look at the inbox when you want to do so.
It is far better to surf on top of email than to be drowned under it. Using this simple system can clear out your backlog and get you to the zen-like world of the empty inbox. Some great resources to check out that served as source material for this article include David Allen’s www.gettingthingsdone.com and the “Inbox Zero” web site www.43folders.com/izero.