There are 3 key strategies you can use to get manage email overload and use it in an effective and productive way. They are what I call the WWW of Mastering Email – the When, What and Where.
This post looks at the #1 solution to email and information overload – getting control of WHEN you check your inbox.
Schedule times to check your email
As Nathan Zeldes writes in his new ‘Solutions to Information Overload: The Definitive Guide’;
“This is probably the single most important change an individual can adopt to improve their state vis-à-vis personal information overload”
So, when his 20+ years of research lead him to write that the single most important strategy for overcoming email overload is to ‘read email only in predefined daily time slots’, we should take notice.
And it’s not just Nathan. Tim Ferriss, author of the bestselling ‘The Four Hour Workweek’, states that:
“This habit alone can change your life. It seems small but has an enormous effect”
And my own research, combined with years of experience gained from working with thousands of busy professionals here in Australia leads me to the same conclusion.
You will be far more productive by checking email in a scheduled block of uninterrupted time (‘single-tasking’) rather than checking it every few minutes when they arrive as an interruption (causing you to ‘multi-task’). So much of the productivity damage that email does occurs not because of ‘what’ the email is but ‘when’ it arrives.
Turn off all email alerts
A critical part of this strategy of ‘checking email only at designated times’ is to turn off all email alerts – both the audible and the visual. You want to ‘blissfully ignorant’ of when emails are arriving as you have peace of mind knowing exactly when you will get to them. You will be amazed (and delighted) with just how much of a difference this makes.
Now, you might be one of many who fear that, by having all email alerts turned off, you will miss something urgent. However, email was never designed as a tool for synchronous communications (and doesn’t work well when we try to do it).
We have much better tools for those type of synchronous messages – instant messaging, SMS or even a phone call. So the third part of this strategy is to manage other people’s expectations.
Manage other people’s expectations
This can be done in a number of ways.
1. Explain this verbally to those you work closely with.
2. Send a short message explaining your new email policy, advising that you only check email at certain times of the day and letting others know how to get through to you using a more appropriate communication tool such as IM, Skype, ringing your mobile – whatever works for you.
3. Add a PS to your signature block to reinforce this policy on an ongoing basis. Your PS could say something like this;
P.S I am not always at my desk but do check my email 3-4 times per day.
If your matter is urgent, please contact me directly on my mobile number.
Some colleagues may become annoyed they can no longer get the instant response they used to get from you. But if you communicate that your new policy helps you be more productive and they can still reach you with truly urgent messages by using your preferred channel, they will soon adapt to your new, more effective way of working and communicating.
How often to check email
While the research indicates that for most people in most roles, best practice is to check email only at 4 planned times a day (20-30 mins each time), there are many who feel that they have to check it more often. In these cases, the same principle of only checking it at designated blocks of time applies but the frequency increases and the interval between checking is reduced.
For example, you might check email for 5 minutes every half hour if you are in a role requiring you to be highly responsive. Or you could check it once per hour for 15 minutes. The key is still to go to inbox and ‘single-task’ your email and then get out of the inbox and ‘single-task’ your other work, allowing you to far more productive than trying to ‘multi-task’ both at the same time.
For those very few people to whom you may have to be available for urgent messages, you can set up a rule that has all email alerts turned off except from selected people. This works well for anyone in a truly time-sensitive role, those in frontline customer service and for PA/EAs who need to be readily available for their manager.
So that’s the first W of the WWW of Mastering Email. The next blog will explain the second key strategy for getting control of email – WHAT to do with each email when addressing the inbox.