Taming the Email Monster

Balancing one’s time between email and “real work” is a topic that arises frequently in my coaching of executives. It’s true that without a plan to manage email, it can
and will consume our work time. Responding to one email begets another, and soon. Unfortunately, there isn’t one perfect answer to the question of how to balance email with other work, but there is some good guidance that can be applied.
In some positions, particularly those that have a role in serving internal or external customers or leading teams, it’s important to be very timely in responding to email. Advice to check email once or twice a day is not appropriate or helpful for people in these positions. In many positions, “work” is received by email, and thus it’s important to check and read email periodically.

When should one check email and how frequently? I find it works best for me to start the day with my email, respond to what I can, and log the things that need follow-up on my to do list or in an app for this purpose. The Muse recently published a list of the best to-do list apps based on your personality type or work environment. If you are unsure of your type, a simple assessment can open up your productivity with simple awareness.

After logging my non-immediate responses, I can breathe a short sigh of relief and start to work on accomplishing the tasks of the day. For others, it may work better to use the first hour of their day to accomplish something on their list or plan for the day before digging into email. You’ll have to make this choice based on the demands of your work, while also taking into consideration when your energy levels are optimal for productivity. 

Whatever you choose, this advice applies: any email that would take less than two minutes to deal with should be dealt with immediately. It’s inefficient and a time
waster to read an email and then to back later to re-read it and respond. Delete it, file it, answer it—do something if you can do it in less than two minutes. Scanning email is tiring. Although it may seem like a small thing, I encourage you to explore and use the filter features of your email program to decrease the volume of
email any way you can. These features include unsubscribing from unwanted email and filtering e-newsletters and other lower priority email into folders so that you can review it when time permits.  Other new features for email to explore,  Microsoft’s Cortana will read your Outlook emails to you and if you aren’t using GMail’s predictive text and auto-reply feature Forbes Magazine recently published a review of their new security features.
Once you’ve decided how you’re going to start your day, you’ll need to decide how many times per day that you will check email. Some good times to do so include
the beginning and end of the work day and before and after lunch, breaks or meetings. Then consider turning off notifications so as not to be interrupted the
rest of the time.

I suggest that you plan and even schedule time for focused work that coincides with the times of day that your energy levels and focus are at their highest. Sometimes things are going to arise and conflict with your schedule, and that’s ok. Just get back on schedule as soon as you can. If you have team members or colleagues who need to reach you during your focused time, let them know how they should contact you outside of email, perhaps by phone or text message. Be sure to give them an idea of the types of things about which you wish to be interrupted and the types of things that can and should wait.

As you plan your day, I like to suggest that you select three things that you would like to or must accomplish that day. I know you probably have 10 times that many things to do but narrowing down the list gives it some prioritization. Accomplishing the three things provides a momentum that will continue into the rest of your day.
I challenge you to immediately take one small step toward balancing email and focused work time. It could be planning times to check email or turning off email
notifications. Then continue to build upon your new habits. A more balanced approach is yours to be had with a few small steps daily.