9 Ways to Transcend Email Paralysis
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver
I can assure you, email is nowhere on my pre-50 bucket list. It wasn’t even on my list of things to do today, a beautiful snowy Saturday. And yet, here I am. According to research, most of you are here too.
American office workers are spending an average of 6.5 hours per day responding to and generating email. According to Verizon, 90% of Americans bring their smartphones to the bathroom (it’s not just the men!)
I had big goals for this precious Saturday. Weeks ago, I sent my husband a calendar invite that read “Laurie Writing Day.” He graciously accepted, and when I left the house this morning he and our two boys were hammering away (literally) at their latest home improvement project.
I arrived at our town library to find my favorite table in the quiet room empty and waiting for me. Score! I was free. And fired up. Yet with one rookie mistake, I nearly sabotaged my entire writing day trying to clear some headspace before focusing on my creative project. I stupidly opened Outlook. Three hours later, I am deep in the rabbit hole yet still only halfway through several hundred work emails. The clock is clear – even if I spend my entire day on email, there would still be 50 or so outstanding.
As a working mother, I spend too many days waking up at 5am already feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything I would like to. This led me to become a student of intentional life design, and I aspire to help others. But first, I need to walk my talk. And today was designed to be different.
I woke up this morning feeling like a writer, giddy to have an entire day to focus on my passion project. I skipped out the door with my backpack and a huge smile.
Now I am a robot. And it’s my own damned fault. At the risk of causing offense, I’d like to point out that it’s your fault too. Please stay with me…
As I churned through my emails I started to question – how much of this can we own as individuals? If we acknowledge (as countless articles have) that email is universally reviled, if it’s quantifiably stealing years from our one and precious lives, where is the revolution?
If we’re connected personally, you know I am an only somewhat apologetic Luddite. Many aspects of my life have been transformational. Alas, technology isn’t one of them. Yet.
So for now, I’m leaving the technology solutions to the techies. Let’s focus on human beings and the choices at our fingertips.
Here are 9 Ways to Prevent Email from Steamrolling Your Life (and the Lives of Others):
1. Block Time
Block time on your calendar for “email churn” and avoid checking it any other time. Whether your block lasts 1, 2 or 3 hours is up to you – decide what works in the context of the expectations of your chosen profession and level.
You’ve heard this a million times before right? Why not try it out as an experiment? Just make sure you give your team the heads up!
At this stage, you might be thinking “but you just don’t understand….” Rest assured, I do. Exceptional circumstances are the bane of change, in my view. Dare to question your assumptions; there are usually workarounds.
For example, client responsiveness is key in my profession. Yet at the same time making meaningful progress on projects often requires several hours of uninterrupted focus. How to reconcile these two things? First, I turned off the new message alerts that pop up every time an email arrives – how incredibly distracting! To compensate, I created sound alerts for specified individuals, namely my clients. Presto – I don’t miss important outreach and I am not distracted by the constant visual and audio pings of arriving emails.
2. Make it a Team Effort
Support your team’s use of time blocks and real downtime. Avoid being that annoying colleague who clicks send on an email then runs down the hall and asks “did you see my email?” You know who you are! I know I am guilty of this myself. Agree on a strategy that works for everyone.
For example, instant message (or dare I say an old fashioned phone call) is a great workaround for time sensitive outreach. Just be careful not to abuse the system in your enthusiasm – there is a difference between satisfying our craving for instant gratification and that which is truly time sensitive. Which leads me to…..
3. Be Thoughtful
We’re all suffering from email overload. But we’re all contributing to it as well. What can we do, as individuals, to reduce this suffering?
For example: I had 30 or so emails in my inbox that included some variation of “Hi Laurie, are you free to catch up this week?” That’s it. No context. No available times proposed. These emails create several avoidable extra steps for me, and are more likely to be filed or deleted. It’s mathematical, not personal. I love my work and the people involved, but there are only so many hours in the day.
When crafting an email:
- Be succinct but offer context
- Offer available times if attempting to schedule
- Consider if all recipients truly need to be included
- Avoid back and forth thank you, you’re welcome, and other pleasantries that multiply email traffic
If it’s after hours or on the weekend, consider saving it as a draft or scheduling delivery during business hours. We all need a break from email. This isn’t a lack of worth ethic; this is brain science. Many of us catch up during odd hours, but this creates unnecessary stress for others. Unless it’s urgent, do we really need to click send immediately? I’ve received emails from people I respect on Easter Sunday and Christmas Day. And as I caught myself judging them, I realized I was the loser checking email. On Easter Sunday. And Christmas Day. There are no bad guys and good guys here; we are all co-creating this insanity.
4. Avoid Checking Email First Thing
Getting sucked in to email upon waking up in the morning is a well- known productivity killer. And yet so many of us do it. Why? It’s gratifying, it’s easier than tackling harder tasks, and having so many unread emails can feel mentally paralyzing or even risky, especially if we’re working across global time zones.
Try this – before anything else (except maybe meditating or exercising) spend 15-30 minutes clarifying your goals for the day and planning your schedule. Then ideally accomplish one nagging task – this sets you up mentally for a productive day.
Now it’s time to check in and make sure there aren’t any landmines in your inbox.
5. Address Root Cause Issues
Steven Covey’s habit #7, Sharpen the Saw, is worth considering as it relates to email. As you may recall, the woodcutter says “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. Don’t you see I’m too busy?” even though doing so would result in a much faster attempt to cut down the tree.
Investing the time to address several root cause issues of email overload would be time well spent:
- Report spam
- Use email signatures or text expanders for often used responses
- Discover what other email productivity hacks exist in your Outlook, Gmail or other providers
- Ask to be left off unnecessary emails
6. Take Command of Your To-Do List
And your inbox is not your to-do list.
Whether you use a technology solution or an old school notebook, have a place to offload the mental weight of your to-do list. Even better, calendar it. If the deliverable is important, dedicate specific time. If it’s not, file or hit delete.
As a next level hack, designate a clearly identified place on that list for your top 5 priorities for the day. This is your North Star. This is what you (not others) have identified as your top priorities.
This accountability will serve you well when you find yourself churning through email or being pulled in to the fire drills of others throughout the day. Ask yourself “why is my attention elsewhere and not on my top priorities?”
It’s like meditation, we’re human and prone to distraction, especially when it involves helping others. The magic is recognizing when we’ve drifted off and getting ourselves refocused. Over and over again.
7. Write Like a Boss
My emails are lengthy. I like to write. My poor suffering colleagues would likely vote me off the island if brevity mattered. So it’s time to walk my talk.
Moving forward, I am committed to writing a healthy percentage of my emails the way CEOs do.
- Very short (possibly one line)
- Probably saying “no, but thanks” more than others would like (future article on the power of the artful “no” coming soon)
- Using “on it” to assure the sender I have their outreach in mind (which I may or may not action right away)
- Reduced the number of people Cc’d
- Fewer lead-ins and other non-essential words – emails are specific and straight to the point.
- More quick responses from my phone instead of more thoughtful (and lengthy) responses from my desk
- Reduced use of small talk, pleasantries and social banter
This last one may take some getting used to. I like people, and want our exchanges to be friendly and warm. Professionally and personally this matters. But I am committed to the cause. Consider this awesome quote:
If everyone were to cut out all the niceties, everyone would be a bitch. But if everyone did it, no one would be a bitch. And right now, everyone is a bitch. Email’s bitch. —Jordan Crook (journalist)
8. Declare Bankruptcy
Several times a year, I return from vacation with 600-800 emails in my inbox. For an efficiency hack, this is paralyzing.
While keeping up with email during vacation may not be sound advice for everyone, ultimately I found that it works best for me.
The trade-off? I declare bankruptcy my first day back in the office. Everything truly essential has already been dealt with or delegated while I was away. Now, it’s time for the egregious act of hitting select all and moving everything to a folder I cheekily name something like “August 2017 Post Vacation Bankruptcy.”
My inbox is empty. My head is clear. I can focus on my top priorities. And while I am mildly anxious and have undoubtedly disappointed some, the overall benefits are worth the risk. I trust that anything urgent will appear again. And I am prepared to own it and say “I’m so sorry” if any important balls get dropped which, surprisingly, rarely happens. Later, I will churn through this folder (at a designated time – see Rule #1) and make sure I didn’t miss anything.
9. Set Boundaries
Is anything sacred anymore?
I attended a wedding in 2007 when BlackBerrys were all the rage. Being issued one signaled to the world that you were important. At one point all five groomsmen were heads down on their devices during the rehearsal which took place at a beautiful vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island overlooking the ocean. Instead of connecting with each other or enjoying the view, these old friends were on email. Remember this was before iPhones, before we were all so addicted. The emails weren’t urgent but the groomsmen’s desire to impress (or check out) took precedence during a once in a lifetime weekend. I snapped a photo because it was novel; but that scene might be considered normal now.
Ten years later, I am hopeful that having the courage to be unplugged and present in our lives will emerge as the new status symbol.
Meantime, we are in control of how much we allow email to infiltrate our lives. Just because an email arrives doesn’t mean we must immediately respond. Listen for the words “but I am just” when responding to a work email (or text) during family dinner.
Ask yourself, if I am being honest, is this really so time sensitive? Better yet, ask your partner. They will happily tell you no, it’s not.
Whether for a project requiring deep focus, family dinner, date night, workouts or other elements of living a fully realized life, experiment with setting aside a sacred block of time when you’re 100% off the grid.
Does your commitment to being a present parent or avoiding burnout trump your fear of missing out? Is it strong enough to overcome distraction? Have you told others so they hold you accountable to your commitment? A few months ago, I set a goal of taking a one hour walk per week without my iPhone. I’ve been surprised and humbled by how difficult this is. I am still a work in progress on this.
We are all a work in progress. At present, I feel like email is winning. But this afternoon, I transformed my frustration in to this article. I am fighting the good fight, and this small victory will hopefully serve others as well.
Bonus: Use Email as a Force For Good
Spend 5 minutes today sending someone a note expressing gratitude, kudos, or support if they’re going through a challenging time.
Laurie Thompson is a Principal in the Global Financial Services Practice at Heidrick and Struggles, the executive search and leadership advisory firm. She is also an aspiring author who writes about integrating professional life with motherhood.