Monday, September 27, 2021

Removing Distractions Series: Email Twice a Day

Actions to take: Only spend time on email at the beginning and end of each day. With practice, you can get your email inbox to zero in 30 minutes or less. Turn off all email notifications. Close the app when not in use. Get more efficient at both reading and responding to email.

This is one entry in a short series about removing distractions from your work, inspired by the Cost of Distractions post from early September. There are both productivity and mental health benefits to removing distractions while working on anything that requires focus.

I have a colleague whose email signature includes the line "Please note: My working hours may not be your working hours. Please do not feel obligated to reply outside of your normal work schedule." As I understand it, her entire workplace uses this line. I wish every organization encouraged its employees to have a similar message.

The best thing about this signature isn't what it says to the recipient. It is what it says about the sender. It says, "Don't expect me to respond immediately either."  It says, "We don't use email for urgent business." It says, "My workplace values thought and focus, not round-the-clock availability." 

It shouldn't be necessary to make these statements, but it is. Most organizations won't come right out and say that you need to check your email constantly. The assumption is there, however. And it is a massive productivity killer. Every time you are notified of a new email coming in, your attention gets pulled from whatever you were doing. It is worse than that. Even if no new emails pop up while you are working on something, you won't be able to focus completely. Because we are so primed to expect email, we have trained ourselves to never get immersed in a task. 

You can work better than this.

When you get into work in the morning, spend enough time to clear your email down to zero. Before you leave for the day, clear your email down to zero. If you are waiting for something important from your boss, take a minute to check it once before or after lunch. Other than that, stay out of email entirely. In the vast majority of workplaces, you can get your email down to zero in 30 minutes. I'm saying, at a maximum, you should spend 61 minutes in your email app per day.

That figure sounds laughable to some of you. In many organizations, there is so much email that you wouldn't even dream of getting through it in an hour a day. You can. You have to work a lot smarter, and you have to ween yourself off the false premise that you need to be available at all times. Here's how to do it.

How to work smarter: 

  1. Set up sorting rules. Outlook (and any email app like it) has a robust set of tools for automatically slotting emails into folders. Set up a folder for email that comes from directly up the chain—that's the important one to check every time you open your app. Set up another for emails that come from your staff—also make sure to check that daily. The rest of the rules are up to you. Virtually everything else is okay to wait a day or two if you run out of time in your 30 minutes. Half or more can likely be funneled into folders you never have to check (e.g. automatically generated emails from the timeclock software).
  2. Scan for the bottom line. Most people are terrible at writing emails. The most important point will be buried in the 3rd sentence of the 5th paragraph. Don't read emails top to bottom. Instead, scan for "the ask" that the sender is making (What type of response do they need, if any? Are they notifying you of a deadline? Are they briefing you on new information?). After you find the ask, go back to the top of the email. You'll be able to read and absorb much more quickly knowing the point of it all.
  3. Respond briefly. You are spending too much time composing your emails. You don't need to do all that explaining. You don't need to re-read it for the third time to make sure your wording is perfect. People probably aren't reading it. Those who do read it are probably getting lost in the message you intend to convey. Just write less.
    • Yes, some emails need a great deal of care. Maybe you are reporting to your boss on a highly sensitive matter. Compose that correspondence outside the email app and outside the 30-minute windows we're talking about here. 
  4. Or don't respond at all. Very little of our email expects to get a response. For the 5 percent or so of emails that do pose some kind of question, ask yourself how likely it is that another person on the team has the same thoughts you do. If there are good odds you'd just be saying the same thing as everyone else, then don't spend the time.
    • If you are only checking your email at the beginning and end of the day, a colleague will probably respond before you. Likely, they'll cover most of the ground you would have. Then you can spend your time effectively by bringing up points that are unique to your perspective.
How to commit to this new method:
  1. Turn off all email notification: The default notification settings for Outlook are wild. You get a little colored envelope on the Outlook icon in your taskbar, a pleasant-but-fairly-long chime sound, and a popup preview of the email that hangs out for 5 seconds or so. Based on how thoroughly you are alerted, you can be forgiven for thinking that email is the most important thing in the world. It is not. If you take no other advice from this post, at least turn off these notifications. Even if you can't help checking email every 15 minutes, at least you won't be getting pinged every 3.
  2. Close the app entirely. This has the same effect as step one, just better. Most of you won't be able to bring yourself to do it though. You will be surprised at the fear of missing out that this act creates. To fight the FOMO, track how often you give in and open the app outside of your morning and end-of-work times. Whenever you give in, mark how often you found something that couldn't wait until your usual email review (prediction: it will be 0% of the time).
  3. Realize most people won't notice. According to a MarketWatch study, senders typically expect a response within 24 hours, but recipients often reply within 15 minutes. Nobody wants you to be that on-the-ball! I mentioned the twice-a-day email method to one of my bosses after almost 2 years working together. Until that moment, she had no idea that was how I operated.
  4. Accept that you'll occasionally falter. It is very difficult to switch to this method after spending years with "always on" email. Even after you see how well it works, you'll find yourself peeking into your email app every hour "just in case." It's okay not to be perfect. (Though I really do encourage you to track how often these cheat-checks end up being anything other than wasted time)

The advice here extends beyond email. Give this treatment to any communication app that has the ability to distract you mid-thought (I'm looking at you, Slack). Schedule when you are going to use it and for how long. Stick to that plan. You'll find that you are much more able to immerse yourself in tasks. When you can focus completely, it virtually guarantees better, more efficient work. 

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