We’ve all been there: that moment of exasperation when you realise how little control you actually have on your day, and how much of your time is spent dedicated to solving other people’s problems. You can’t help but yearn to be the master of your own time and quit getting bossed around.
Email is a particularly insidious culprit in this battle of wills. The act of responding to email in itself is reactive, putting others in the driver’s seat. The medium of email also places demands on your attention and fractures your focus: if you allow it to.
Are you already an email puppet? Read these five symptoms and decide.
You open your email inbox first thing in the morning
The first hour or so of your day is extremely precious, as it sets the tone for the rest of the day. Yielding this time to email sacrifices your own initiative and you start the day working for someone else. Even if you only glance at your inbox for 30 seconds, you’ve allowed your mind to chew on problems, questions, and issues that others have decided to throw your way, instead of staying fresh and contemplating your priorities for the day.
How you spend those first few minutes of your day is so important that there are numerous websites dedicated to examining the way successful people spend them. Notice among all of these examples that none of them have among their list of items a quick glance at their email.
There’s so much evidence against this that Julie Morgenstern even wrote a book titled “Never Check Email in the Morning”.
You find yourself checking your email every 15 minutes
I’ve noticed a perverse sense of self-importance those some who constantly whip out their phones to scan their mail.
“I’m so important and so in demand that everyone’s trying to reach me all the time and my up-to-the-minute response is crucial to save the world”
The irony is that this practice diminishes their own importance to the people who are actually in their company. Even worse, it’s been found that it makes you stupid – research has found that checking email constantly can lower our IQ by up to 10 points.
Even just considering the short term impact of this practice, stopping a task or conversation to reply to an email is likely to degrade the quality and speed of our response, taking up to 40% longer to complete what we set out to do. If we continue checking our email into the night, this disrupts our sleep and actually makes us even less effective at work the next day. Not so self-important now…
You receive push email notifications on your phone and smartwatch, and have desktop notifications enabled
Closely related to constantly checking your email is allowing yourself to be alerted to every new email you receive. Many email programs come set with default notifications, perpetuating this by the power of status quo bias.
If this is an error of omission, there is an easy fix: just turn those notifications off. They are bad for you. Multiple studies show that they damage your brain and career, so making the nominal effort to avert such a fate has a very high return on investment.
If this is an error of commission, and you believe that this allows you to be more responsive and productive, bear in mind that multi-tasking doesn’t work. It is a myth busted by almost unanimous academic research, and trying to achieve it is counter-productive at best.
You don’t know how long you spend ‘processing’ email everyday
Another surefire sign that you’ve surrendered your agenda is that you don’t know how long you’re spending on it everyday. Email is a means of talking about getting work done, and not actually getting work done. The danger it presents is in its drip-feed of little dopamine hits each time you receive a new mail. This causes you to be completely absorbed in the cycle of opening an email, replying, sending, and then opening the latest new entry to your inbox.
Three hours later, you look up at the clock wondering where all your time went. Without a means of tracking our time on email, we can get sucked into these temporal sinkholes without even realising. If you don’t have a method of tracking and limiting your email time, you’re opening a door for it to consume your time and agenda.
You feel the urge to respond to every email that comes your way
The Radicati Group estimates that the total number of emails sent and received in 2015 is 205 billion every day. The average email account receives 88 emails a day – for those of you who are reading this post you’re probably getting more. Even if it only took 2 minutes to process every single one of these, that would already take up almost 3 hours of your time daily, or more than 20% of your waking hours.
Face it: nobody replies and responds (or even opens) every mail.
Having the privilege to have consulted several Fortune 500 CEOs in the course of my work, one common observation I’ve had from their workstyle is they regularly allow email “emergencies” to resolve themselves. If something is really pressing, they reason, they would get a text message or call. That way, they can focus on the most important tasks at hand, and not what others perceive to be the most urgent.
If you’re not letting a few emails slide deliberately, that may be the thing preventing you from becoming a Fortune 500 CEO.
What does this mean for you?
Here are the steps you can take today to get back in control:
Schedule time for email
The other posts in The Time Doctor blog cover the philosophy behind this perfectly. One quick and easy hack you can apply to instantly control your email time is to schedule it, and stick to the schedule as you would any other appointment in your calendar.
What I find works well for me is to use scheduled email sprints to clear my inbox. The Pomodoro Technique is helpful in getting you started with the discipline needed for this. You can buy a kitchen timer or just use this handy link that does the job just as well for you (free of charge).
Parkinson’s Law states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This works about 80% of the time – the more time you allocate to a job, the bigger and more complex it becomes. With email, if left unscheduled it can expand to fill the time you have available until the next appointment. This is likely to be a poor use of your time.
But what if I’m working on something time sensitive that requires immediate response?
There are several ways you can set up email threads or emails from people that will trigger targeted notifications. On Gmail, you can configure a workaround to notify you using Google Docs and Google Calendar, this link teaches you how (since the time of publication Google no longer provides SMS alerts, but you can configure it to surface as an alert on your phone instead).
On the default iOS Mail app, you can actually set up alerts for specific email threads from your folders view (you can find detailed guides to this and other iOS functions here):
It is also possible to set up IFTTT (If This Then That) to provide an SMS to you if you receive an email with a specific label or from a specific email address, so that you’ll know if you do need to respond immediately.
What if I don’t want to schedule time on email but want to know how long I spend on it?
There are applications that allow you to track your time automatically: RescueTime has a user-friendly interface and is quite easy to install, while Toggl and ManicTime also do a good job counting your email minutes for you. If you find that your company’s IT security doesn’t allow you to track this automatically (these can be quite invasive to your computer system), you can always set up a simple DO button recipe at IFTTT to track this manually.
Remove all unnecessary notifications
Keep yourself sane with this minor change to your email applications.
If you’re on Microsoft Outlook, just go to Mail Options and turn off all desktop alerts. If you must, you can then create an Outlook rule to display alerts for messages from specific people sent only to you, for example:
On the native iOS Mail app, go to Settings > Notifications > Mail > Allow Notifications > [Name of Mailbox] > Badge App icon. You can customise how you want your notification settings to be for each mailbox.
How else can I prevent myself from email distractions?
I close my email program when not working on it, but if you absolutely must keep it open, Houdini is a menu bar utility app for Mac that hides inactive applications (like Mail) to help you stay focused. The app has a simple interface and allows you to configure the settings for each hidden application. It’s inspired by Spirited Away and is free to download from the Mac App Store.
Focus Mask is another Mac application designed to get rid of distractions while you work. But on top of just putting the active windows on stage (with the rest behind the curtain), Focus Mask lets you choose which window to bring to the front and then to isolate a part of a window through simple shortcuts.
No more excuses for getting distracted!
Shifting your mindset – Jedi Mind Tricks
You can use certain techniques to have people send you fewer emails to begin with. Model the behaviour you want the people emailing you to have. Over a relatively short period of time, people are smart – and they learn how best to communicate with you. They can’t help it, it’s in their nature.
You can do this by, among other things:
- Sending shorter emails (and encouraging others to do the same)
- Organising the emails you send by your own triage categories to subtly prompt others to do the same
- Setting email autoresponders
- Just letting some emails go unanswered
To hack your own mindset, spend 3 minutes each evening reviewing the tasks that need to be completed the following day, and prioritise them. This simple act, along with a bit of visualisation to help make the tasks more tangible, can keep you focused on what to do and help you avoid the temptation of opening your inbox too early in the day.
The feeling of being in control is linked to the sense of freedom and happiness we have. The impact that bad email habits have on this is non-trivial. By scheduling time for email, turning off unnecessary notifications and disruptions, and shifting your own mindset and the email behaviour of others, you can regain your freedom and feel happier – almost overnight.
Thanks CT for writing this very informative post
Till next time
Mike gardner is The Time Doctor
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