In March, I was part of a BBC Radio 5Live panel to discuss ways people can overcome email overwhelm. Cal Newport was also part of the panel, sharing his new book, A World without Email: Reimagining work in the age of overload.
One of the main tactics I was asked to talk about was email bankruptcy. This is something Daniel Levitin talks about in his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. Essentially, email bankruptcy can be used when you have so many unanswered emails in your inbox that you have zero hope of ever getting on top of them. The first step is to delete or archive everything in your inbox. The second step is to send out an email to all your correspondents/ colleagues, explaining that you’re behind on email and if they had emailed you about something extremely important they should email you again. On average, less than 10 per cent will come back with another email.
Here are three other tactics that have worked for many of my clients and students:
- BREAK TASKS INTO BITE-SIZE CHUNKS
Many people I work with say they feel overwhelmed in general, with big projects and responsibilities. And this gets to the heart of why we might be spending too much time lurking in our inbox. Sometimes when we feel overwhelmed at the size of the task or project we’re working on, we look for easier things to do. And email gives us that little serotonin rush because it’s a tangible thing, “I’ve read that email ,I can respond to it, even if it’s a one-word reply” TICK!
And so, if we reverse engineer that, if you have a project or task that’s overwhelming you and you don’t know where to start, one thing to do is to break that task down into tiny little chunks. And then you’re much more likely to focus your precious time and energy on that project, rather than be distracted by the seeming ease of responding to emails. It can make us feel good to do email (a bit like McDonalds can satisfy our hunger for a short period of time) because it’s a tangible thing. It feels like we’re doing good work, when actually that’s not necessarily the real work, the high-impact work that’s going to make a real difference to your customers, service users and the world.
2. SCHEDULE BLOCKS OF QUIET, UNINTERRUPTED TIME
There’s so much research which shows the power of not having your email on all the time and certainly not having the alerts, including the noise that goes with the alerts. So switching it all off and only switching it on at designated times can really help your focus and productivity. A study from 2008, led by Gloria Marks, found the positive impact of quiet, uninterrupted time on a a group of stressed, under-performing software engineers was exponential.
This can is also important from a personality perspective. For example, those who are high on the conscientiousness trait, are much more likely to feel the need to respond to email immediately. This makes it even more important to turn the email off because if we’re high in conscientiousness, we feel the need to be seen to be responding and responding quickly.
A tactic that’s worked for lots of my clients, and it’s one that I’ve found really helpful when I was in a leadership role, is to spend no more than 20-30 minutes first thing in the morning on email, another 20-30 minutes in the middle of the day, and then 20-30 minutes at the end of the working day. If you’re competitive, use that to your advantage and use a timer and the Pomorodo Technique can give you focus – ensuring you get through as many emails as you can in the time allocated, before the alarm goes off.
3. USE RULES
The majority of people I work with are middle-managers through to board level. Regardless of sector, if you’re in a position of management or leadership, all eyes are on you. You’re a role model. And it’s typical human behaviour to look for clues from others for ‘rules of the game’ as to how to behave, particularly at work. Therefore, the tone you set matters. So what can you do to role model handling email?
Well, one of the most annoying organisational norms I come across is that of copying everyone in on everything. We know copying in has a negative impact on organisations (time, cost, stress), therefore, you can role model by NOT copying everyone in, or replying all. I’m always interested in the root cause of a behaviour and what I find with the tendency to copy all is that this often comes from a position of fear – the need to have an audit trail and proof that you did something. As someone with a degree of power, you can break that cycle – by asking people not to cc you in.
When I was in a central, executive role, I was copied in on everything (or it certainly felt that way!) I was getting anything up to 500 emails a day (from inside and outside the organisation) and I didn’t have a PA! So I used Microsoft Outlook Rules. For example, if I was cc-ed in, the person would receive an auto message from me explaining that I wouldn’t read their email immediately as I assumed it was just for information. If, however, they needed me to actually DO something, then they needed to re-send and put me in the ‘To’ list, not the ‘CC’ list. You can put rare exceptions to the rule, such as excluding your chief executive from the rule (this is particularly pertinent in highly political organisations). What was interesting to me was how many colleagues started to do the same and use email rules and it started to change the culture of my team when it came to email. I’m always struck by how few people don’t know about email rules because we don’t teach people, so if this is new to you then I’d definitely encourage you to try it out.
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