There you are. You open your email on Monday morning and see the count—hundreds of emails. That badge of unread messages says, “You know you can’t do anything else until you deal with me.”
You spend hours skimming them. You trash some. You keep others thinking, “I’ll respond later.” After all of the new emails are read, you try to move along to other work.
Of course, you leave your email open. Across the organization others are doing the same thing as you as they try to catch up on cluttered inboxes.
Soon, you begin to hear that da-ding, puh-ping. You see the notifications pop up on your screen, you now have another email requiring your attention. Somehow, that registers as urgent.
Would it surprise you if I said that I only check email 3 times each day?
Would you scoff if I said that I begin and end my week with fewer than 5 emails in my personal and business email accounts and that it has been that way for 4 years?
Even now, you might be thinking, “I’d love to do that, but I get too much email.”
I receive thousands of emails each week, but I accomplish email freedom through discipline and a few, non-negotiable principles. I decided long ago that I wouldn’t be held hostage by email.
Email freedom begins with understanding what email is and is not.
Email is noise
The average office worker receives 121 emails a day and sends 40 business emails daily.
For that reason, it can be useful for putting information in someone’s hands when we are not able to reach them—essentially a written form of voicemail. But, because of volume, it is often treated as noise.
Think about the size of your inbox. How much attention are you able to give each of those messages. Email is terribly inefficient and often sucks time out of our workweeks.
When was the last time you began an email and paused to think, “Do I really need to send this by email? Or could I get better results by phone or in person?”
Email creates a false sense of productivity
When my wife was working on her Ph.D., it wasn’t uncommon for her to begin the day with a plan to write another chapter toward her dissertation. I would return home and find her deep cleaning the house. Cleaning house was the work she did when she was avoiding her dissertation.
Email is the work people do when they are avoiding real work. How often have you stared at your computer screen trying to decide what to do and then opted to check and respond to email?
Email isn’t actually work. If anything, it’s an excuse not to do many of the things we know we should be doing.
Email fuels passive behavior
If we don’t want to talk to someone because face to face conflict is uncomfortable, we send an email.
If we don’t have complete details on a project, but we want to look like we have made progress, we tap off a vague set of instructions for someone to begin on a project and pass the buck.
We use email for political cover. A boss asks, “Is that brochure designed yet?” We respond, “No. I don’t know why. I asked them for it.” What we really mean is, “I sent them an email telling them what I want.”
Email is a distraction
In a study published in the Jan. 7 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, A researcher asked 300 undergraduates to complete a simple task. Each participant was shown a string of characters and asked to do things like pick out the vowels then the numbers then the red letters, etc., in a specific order. Occasionally, however, after inputting their responses, the computer screen would change, interrupt the primary task and ask participants to simply type a few characters they saw displayed. Immediately following the interruption, they went back to the first sequential task.
They found that people skipped steps or repeated steps at an elevated rate after the interruption. In fact, the participants made mistakes twice as often when interrupted as they did when they were allowed to focus solely on the primary task. Moreover, the interruptions were only 2-3 seconds long.
How often do you consider the impact of email notifications on your daily deep work? How often have you been in deep work on a project and found your progress derailed by an email notification? Even if you ignore the notification, the glance to the screen alert has a detrimental effect.
How much more focused, productive or error free would you be if you disabled notifications to focus on real work?
Email erodes trust
One of the most essential elements in developing trust is being seen. There is a line in How I Met Your Mother where Robin Sherbotsky laments, “I have got to stop joking in email. It’s so hard to convey tone.”
Many people sacrifice face-to-face communication in favor of email. The rationale is that we can talk to more people in less time. But, convenience comes at a cost.
When accompanied by body language, we are able to quickly and easily interpret intent or tone. In email, it is easy to misunderstand intent or tone. We hear the message based upon perceptions of the person sending the message.
Employees should be encouraged to leave their seats and talk person-to-person. Be seen. Work together in a public space. Run into other people on the way to those conversations and have new conversations.
Now that we understand what email is, we begin the disciplines toward email independence.
6 steps toward email freedom
1. Designate times to check email
It is important to establish boundaries. We all have times of day when deep work is optimal. We will be most productive if we focus on deep work during times that fit our natural routines.
That means there are also times of day when email erodes our abilities to make important progress on deep work.
Establish expectations based upon your optimal times.
I check email for 15-30 minutes first thing in the morning, at lunch and at the end of the day. If anything is truly pressing, they can call or stop by for a face-to-face.
2. Never read an email more than once
Leaving an email in your inbox means that we will eventually read the email again. This is an inefficient way to manage information. We consume valuable time.
If it requires a simple reply, then issue the simple reply right now. “Thanks.” “I’m on it.”
If it requires action, take action or create a to-do for that action. Then, hit delete.
3. Send project-related emails to a project management system
If you aren’t using a project management system, now is the time to begin. You can go the free route with a company like Asana, low cost like Basecamp (my personal favorite), or top-of-the-line like Slack.
If the email relates to a project, copy or forward the information into the project. Once it is in the right hands, hit delete.
4. If it’s junk, unsubscribe or block the sender
Do you ever seen articles or videos and think, “That looks great. I’ll save it for later.” How often do you actually return to those emails and read the content?
If it’s an article you genuinely will read, save it to your personal reader like Pocket or Flipboard. Then, hit delete.
If it isn’t something you expect to realistically return to, be honest with yourself. You can always Google the topic later.
5. Rule them all
All email programs offer the ability to create rules. They’re like police at an intersection telling cars where to go.
Learn how to make email rules. Standard receipts, notifications or reports can be easily sent to folders for later retrieval but should not demand your attention in your inbox.
With it carefully stored in a folder, you don’t have to bother hitting delete.
6. Don’t send emails after hours
We often think that sending emails after hours shows people how committed or busy we are. Instead, it screams, “Email me after hours. I’m always available.”
Establish boundaries. If you must write a response outside of normal hours, save it in your drafts until morning. There are even email clients that allow you to schedule responses.
The fault of an always-on world is that it doesn’t allow your brain the opportunity to disconnect. I can’t tell you how many of the worst, reactive emails in my life were written outside of normal hours because I was tired from a long day.
Write if you must. Then, edit and save until morning.
The least you should take away from this article is 1) limit your email time, 2) never read an email more than once, and 3) delete, delete, delete.
Gaining email independence requires discipline. Start with small habits, and you will be surprised how easy it becomes.
Start today. Hit delete.