Pretty much everyone I talk to says they would be better at their job if they had more time to think.
Also, when I ask, “What are your biggest time sinks?” the vast majority of people say “email.” But almost no one says that email is the most important thing they do.
The need to be responsive
The reason so many people remain a slave to email is because they are afraid to be seen as unresponsive in today’s, always-on world.
You are putting this pressure on yourself.
I had a fascinating discussion with a group of peers, about half of whom worked at home. They communicated on instant messaging as well as email. One woman was literally afraid to go to the bathroom when she was working at home, because she thought that if she did not respond instantly, her colleagues would think she was goofing off.
I asked her in-office colleagues, “What would you think if you sent an instant message to someone on the team working at home and you didn’t hear back for an hour?” The resounding reply was, “that they were working on something important.”
Responding instantly doesn’t always add value
Taking the time to think through your work strategically, and focus time an energy on the things that have the biggest impact on the business, adds value. Improving the way you do your work to be more effective or efficient adds value.
I have talked to managers who say that people who always respond instantly to email seem less effective because they never seem to be working on anything. Ouch!
Free yourself to work more strategically and not let email take over your life. Here are some of the best practices I have collected to help spend less time on email, and build your credibility along the way.
7 ideas to make email less painful
- Make the container smaller. Email will fill any amount of time you give it. If you are doing email every night for hours after dinner you are doing something wrong. How much time in your day is email actually worth? Set a time limit based on what email deserves compared to other things. Think about budgeting only one hour per day for email. How would you make sure you got to the most critical stuff?
- Get the time of day right. We all have a part of the day when we are most brilliant and focused. If you are at your best first thing in the morning, or right after you take a walk at lunch, do your most thinking-intensive, hard, strategic work then. Don’t waste your best brain on email.
- Turn off the temptation. Turn off the beeps, the alerts, and the pop-up windows. Don’t keep checking your email all day. Give your boss a heads up, then set up an auto-responder that lets people know that you answer email at noon and 5 pm. That way you are giving an immediate response and you are also signaling that you are working on something important.
- Don’t read all your email. Know your “Ruthless Priorities.” Keep a list of them with you at all times. Then deal first with the email that impacts your ruthless priorities. You will be seen as highly responsive on the most important things. Everything else does not need the same level of care and responsiveness. The phone will ring if you miss something really important. Getting your ruthless priorities done will always add more value than doing all of your email.
- Catch what’s most important. Use filters to find the emails coming from your boss, board members, top clients, etc. to make sure you don’t miss those. Only read things you are in the “TO” list not just “CC’d.”
- File instead of read. One woman I met had a goal for email that was simply to never lose an email from a key client. When she got emails she didn’t read them as she got several hundred a day. She would just file them in a folder for that client, and if something ever came up that was in an email, she would search for it in the moment.
- Quick reply. When you get an email from someone who wants to give you input or get your opinion, sometimes “got it, thanks” is all you ever need to do. You will be seen as being very responsive without spending lots of time responding to everything. Always acknowledge input from people.
Zero inbox is not for everyone, but when I stepped back to think about my own time-wasters, I realized that I personally wasted a lot of time searching for messages I sent, received, deleted…(where was that message?).
Or I would waste time just mindlessly poking around the 1200-2500 messages in my inbox at any point in time to see what I might need to act on.
I now have had zero messages in my inbox for the past 3 years. This saves about 2-4 hours in my week, and a lot of frustration.
Here is how I do it:
Act on any message you can in the moment. Deal with it or delete it. For the others: File them.
You need two types of categories: Action and Save.
My Action categories are:
- DO: I need to do something, call someone, do research, write something, etc.
- REPLY: I need to send an email reply but can’t do it at the moment.
- FOLLOW UP: date stamp it for follow-up and get it out of the inbox.
My Save Categories are:
- CLIENTS OR PROJECTS: one folder for each.
- TRAVEL: itineraries and travel Logistics.
- LOGINS & ACCOUNTS: login and account info for various online systems.
- RESOURCES: pointers to vendors, services, utilities, websites and other resources.
- GOOD STUFF: miscellaneous things worth saving.
- WAITING: information I will need to act on later but not now.
The dramatic improvement
It took me about six hours one day to re-classify or delete everything in my inbox.
- But now it takes me about 1-10 minutes each day to clear my inbox.
- I do not search for “lost” messages any more.
- I do not poke around in my inbox any more.
I schedule working time to take action on email. Then I get right to the DO and to the Reply folders without needing to look for anything.
I’m more productive.
What things have you done to keep email from taking over your life? Please share what works best for you in the comments below.
This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.