We live in an age of information overload.
As a result, many of us (me included) have gotten into some really bad habits in an effort just to “keep up.”
These habits are not only killing your productivity, they’re killing you!
So today I thought I’d take a step back from offering fundraising tips and tools, and offer up some brass tacks advice to lighten your load.
And I want to take on the killer of all time sucks.
Yes, email is killing you.
It’s also killing your co-workers. And, by extension, your entire organization.
And in an era where resources are limited, and no one feels they have enough staff to get what needs doing done, this is a significant problem.
What if, rather than securing a hard-to-win capacity building grant from a foundation, you could simply enhance capacity by changing your email habits?
Take Back Your Day!
In fact, take back 13 – 20.5 hours each week!
Depending on which study you read, these are the average amounts of time workers spend on email:
- 28% of the work week – 13 hours/week – per a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute,
- 1 hours checking work email each day – 20.5 hours/week – per a self-reported survey of white-collar workers in the U.S by Adobe.
You, personally, may spend even more time composing and responding to email. Want to find out?
CALCULATE YOUR TIME SPENT ON EMAIL: The Washington Post has a calculator where you can enter in your age when you started working, your expected retirement age, and the number of times you interrupt your work to check email daily that will estimate the percentage of your entire career you’ll expend simply on this one endeavor. The results are frightening! For example, if you began working at age 22, expect to retire at 67, and check your emails twice daily, you’ll spend 60.8% of your career reading and writing work emails and/or being distracted by email interruptions. If you check your email more frequently (I confess that I do; one study found that on average employees check their email 36 times an hour), the percentage creeps up dramatically.
Add to this the fact that numerous studies (see here and here) reveal that spending so much time on e-mail is stressing us out — diminishing sleep, reducing productivity and even making us feel our lives have less meaning – and the problem becomes somewhat urgent.
Yipes! What can be done about this mess we’ve got ourselves into?
First, Acknowledge the Challenges
The Adobe survey highlights a complicating factor: People increasingly expect folks to answer emails within hours, if not minutes — putting pressure on everyone to constantly monitor their inboxes. It’s very difficult for our brains to exercise restraint and refrain from peering into our inboxes.
This, of course, means frequent switching between tasks. This takes an enormous toll on our attention and emotions.
In fact, it takes employees around 16 minutes to refocus on their tasks after handling email. To get everything done, folks are working longer hours in order to get their work projects addressed. Because half their time at work isn’t actually spent focused on work assignments.
In addition, folks now have the ability to respond to emails 24/7 on mobile devices. This, in effect, makes us slaves to our emails. A study by Good Technology found 38% of employees routinely check work email at the dinner table, 50% do so in bed, and 69% won’t even go to bed without first checking email.
How to Overcome Email Tyranny
5 Action Tips for Responding to Email
1. Check Less
According to a study from the University of British Columbia, there’s a cap on the number of times you should check email throughout the day to reduce stress: three. Switching between tasks requirements realignment of attention and emotions, and can be taxing on the mind. Instead of responding to emails one by one as they come in, set aside certain times of the day (perhaps morning, afternoon and night) to tend to messages.
ACTION TIP: Commit to checking your work email just 3 times/day. I know this is easier said than done, but research shows if you do it you’ll feel less stressed. (Initially, however, you may feel more stressed – so commit to working through this. Be patient. Don’t flog yourself if you relapse a bit. Keep at it. It’s a bit like not eating sugar for two weeks; at the end of the period, you’ll crave it less).
2. Give Up the Empty Inbox Dream
Overcome the urge to delete or read every email. “Inbox Zero” is a myth. The minute you get there, another email zooms in.
ACTION TIP: Commit to a practice of (1) acting on any emails you can handle in 2 minutes; (2) purging periodically, and (2) categorizing emails rather than clearing them out immediately and incessantly (see tips below). Set up your system to archive unread emails periodically (I like every two months). There are no police counting the number of emails in your inbox.
3. Schedule “Purging” Times
Rather than the constant loss of focus that comes with responding to every new message ping, consider creating specific times (e.g., weekly or every other day) in which you “purge” your inbox.
- Delete everything you won’t need again. Sorting by sender can speed things up, enabling you to eliminate in batches.
- Unsubscribe from lists if you never read their emails. These emails clog up your inbox and make you feel overloaded with unchecked messages.
4. Differentiate by Priority
All emails are not created equal. They tend to fall into five categories:
- Read later in the day.
- Read later in the week.
- Read at some future point in time.
- Don’t read/delete.
Don’t waste time with non-urgent emails now. File them with similar emails you can revisit later.
ACTION TIPS: Experiment with using your email filtering tools. This gets non-urgent emails out of your way for now. For example, in Gmail (which I use) there are options such as “Labels,” “Mark Important” or starring so you can create an email hierarchy and automatic delegation before you even view messages. Want to track responses for an event? Consider using the Gmail labelling system. Want to track all emails related to an upcoming meeting? Consider using the Gmail starring system to mark related emails with colored stars. This enables you to quickly find these “to do later” messages again – when you’re ready to deal with them.
5. Get Rid of Most Email Notification Dings
You don’t need to know every time you receive an email.
ACTION TIP: Use this online “how to” to only get phone notifications for emails you care about (e.g., from your boss or about a particular urgent project on which you’re working).
4 Action Tips for Sending Email
6. Keep it Simple and Succinct
Ever send an email with three questions, only to have the emailed response answer just one or two of your queries? This is all too common, and leads to an unnecessary round of back-and-forth emails that get more and more confusing. Accept the reality that busy people often skim and won’t carefully read a long email. To avoid confusion, make K.I.S.S. your modus operandi.
ACTION TIPS: Make emails short and to the point. Envision your email as you would a Twitter post: no more than 140 characters does the job. Elaborate on your email subject line so that less clarification is needed in the message body.
7. Send to Fewer People
The less emails you send, the less responses you’ll receive. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found when a team lowered email output by 54%, 10,400 annual person-hours were gained.
- Avoid group emails. Try sending to just one person (the decision maker or person who has the information you need) rather than a group. While it’s tempting to want to keep everyone in the loop this way, it only distracts these folks from their other tasks and often leaves them wondering what they’re supposed to do with the email you sent.
- Use the CC and BCC functions judiciously. Again, any email you send implies a response is needed. If it isn’t, you’ve opened yourself up to receiving unnecessary (and often useless) emails.
8. Stop Passing the Buck by Forwarding
If you need to get someone up to speed on something, do it directly. Stop forwarding long threaded email conversations which say “see below.” This leaves the recipient stuck weeding through a massive, unformatted, and disorganized email thread. Yes, it gets it off your plate and onto theirs. But it does so in a most ineffective manner.
ACTION TIP: When you forward an email, explain upfront why you’re doing so. Make it crystal clear what items you want the recipient to take away and/or respond to. Don’t make them dig for the reason you sent the email by simply saying “see below.”
9. Consider an Alternate Mode of Communication
Email has gotten out of control to the point where it’s used as a default communication mode for everything and anything. It makes you think something’s been handled, when it really hasn’t. It’s just been punted. Many organization are embracing alternative modes of online workplace communication through such platforms as Basecamp, Asana or Slack. While these may be helpful for projects requiring input from a larger group, understand they don’t necessarily improve on the distraction of email. You still have constant, time-sensitive pings and expectations of urgency.
ACTION TIPS: Ask yourself whether some ‘old-fashioned’ communication may be in order. Could you pick up the phone? Go down the hall and talk to your colleague face-to-face?
1 overall action tip for relating to email
10. Consider Restricting Use of Email at Work
A growing number of corporate leaders across the globe are discovering that limiting or even banning employees’ access to email actually increases productivity. Some companies simply turn off their email servers during non-work hours so there’s no temptation to check them. In David Berkus’ book, Under New Management, he profiles many of these companies and also discusses different studies supporting assertions that email isn’t the best tool for staying productive and stress-free.
ACTION TIP: Experiment with limiting how often your employees check email, or ban it entirely for a test period. Try this for a week or a month and see how people react. Try interacting via phone or in person. Or even try social media instead (per a recent McKinsey Global Institute Report, this can be a great way to unlock productivity, particularly in interactions with external constituents – like donors and volunteers).
- Pick a date (maybe two weeks past), and move ALL of your unacted on and unopened emails older than that into a single folder where you’ll be able to find them if needed (unlikely). Now you have a manageable number of emails you can work with moving forward.
- Get started creating rules for yourself based on the action tips listed above.
- Provide mandatory onboarding and annual training for all employees on how to manage email overload.
Then… let your new system simplify your life!
This post appeared originally in May 2017. From feedback I receive, the problem is getting worse. What do you do to take charge and manage your email. Please share your tips in the comments below.