Every day this week I checked my email once per day. I run a busy web agency with 11 employees and I’m currently managing 5 or so active projects while pushing along a similar number of active sales leads, managing the team and various other bits and pieces. So I can assure you this is not a symptom of a lack of potential email traffic. In fact, I used to drown in email.
Now I check my email once per day and this simple habit saves me hours per week. I know this habit saves me hours because I measured it using one of my favourite productivity web apps, rescue time. In this post I explain how I did this.
First up, it isn’t easy. Maybe some people find this easy, but I didn’t. It’s taken a while and it’s taken some experimentation.
The key is understanding the problem.
If you live in your email you will be reactive and being reactive is a productivity killer. Why? Because although reactive working makes you feel busy it leads to working on the wrong things. If you have a goal in your business or charity or social enterprise and you want to achieve that goal then you haven’t got time to waste doing the wrong things.
4 things that go wrong when you live in your email
- You help people who could help themselves. The number of times I come to my email and read a question and then a reply from the same person saying ‘don’t worry, I figured this out myself’ is remarkable (this happened today).
- Unnecessary conversations. If you email someone saying ‘shall we meet up?’ then it will lead to an unnecessary conversation. Instead, preempt questions and provide options to move more quickly to a resolution.
- You worm out of the things you should be doing. Some task are important but hard. These are the tasks you will put off given any excuse. Living in your email provides that excuse, so cut it off.
- You get distracted. Something catches your eye and before you know it you have totally forgotten what you were doing, and you are acting on something that isn’t even on your to do list.
The solution is to understand what drives you to your inbox
Assuming you understand the problem and are resolved to stop living in your email, how do you do it? The solution I have found it to understand the legitimate needs that push you to your email throughout your working day and find alternative ways to address these needs.
Need #1 – finding documents needed to achieve important tasks
Have you ever searched in your email for a document and somehow found yourself looking at a totally unrelated email that came in since you last looked? You and everyone else who has ever worked in an office environment!
How do you solve this? By saving all your documents outside of your email. I use dropbox and Google Drive but you can use whatever system you want. Try to read every email like it will self-destruct in 15 seconds.
Need #2 – collaboration
Collaboration is often good. Many times you don’t know the answer or, even if you do, you will find a better solution by asking other peoples opinion. However, you need to find good ways to collaborate outside of email. Here are my top two:
- Short, sharp, scheduled meetings or calls with a clear agenda
- Collaborative docs, e.g. Google Docs or Draft In, which allow multiple people to add comments and propose edits on their own schedule.
Need #3 – scheduling meetings
I alluded to this above – arranging meetings over email can easily descend into real-time email ping pong. This is the antithesis of productive working. One simple solution, and the one I use most, is to provide three specific options whenever I suggest a meeting. I write my email in such a way that all the recipient need do is choose an option. All I need do is then confirm this date, and this confirmation can easily come a day or so later and needs only a one liner: ‘great, see you then’.
In contexts (like ongoing projects) where you can reasonably anticipate that a further meeting will be appropriate, an even more efficient approach is to end every meeting by arranging the next.
For more challenging scheduling with multiple parties, use doodle.
Need #4 – distraction
If you have ever clicked refresh on your email then you have experienced the need for distraction. Another name for this is procrastination and it is natural, affects everyone, and can be addressed.
Here are some tactics:
- Make a cup of tea (my favourite). The kettle will not draw you into unhelpfully reactive task. If anything, this break might give you fresh ideas on what you are working on.
- Change location. You can feed the restlessness without sapping productivity by giving a change in scenery.
- Set a timer. Some people swear by the Pomodoro technique. It’s not something I use regularly but it may work for you. The basic idea is to work in set bursts of 25 mins (or whatever works for you) then haves a scheduled 5 min break. This technique also combats the adverse effects of Parkinson’s law which states that the time spent on a task will expand to fill the time allocated.
I have found that these changes save me hours. If you find the ideas useful, please let me know in the comments below! By checking your email all at one go, you also open up huge potential for batch processing efficiency, but that is a subject for a future post. Follow me on Twitter if you want to hear about that.
Update 8/15: Also check out this amazing Chrome extension, which adds a ‘pause’ button to Gmail. This extension addresses one of the main challenges I found to implementing the strategy I describe in this post: being distracted by incoming email subject lines when I opened Gmail only intending to send an email. Thanks to @till_carlos for pointing me to his blog on the same subject here which led me to the Inbox Pause extension.