How I Finally Fixed Email And Changed My Life
Between work and family I seem to be in a state of constantly-swamped, so I’m working hard to simplify my work habits to allow myself more time for thoughtful, focused work. This was the biggest improvement yet: I’ve recently DOUBLED my effectiveness by clearing my schedule and my headspace from the constant distraction and false-productivity of email. We’ve all heard that we should compartmentalize email, to batch our email work in two appointments daily. I’ve previously failed at this, but now I’ve found the one change that makes it possible, even in an email-driven startup. Step 2 below is the crux of the change, but you need to follow 1-2-3.
Groundwork: Get your inbox < 100 conversations.
Removing the distraction of email from your life requires first that you’re keeping it to a manageable level. I’ve kept my combined two inboxen (thanks, Mailbox and Boomerang and Evernote) to under 30 threads consistently for months. I get stressed when that number crosses 20 or 30, but if you’re in the hundreds or thousands, you need to demolish that first. I’ll provide that groundwork in another post.
Step 1: Set a time for it
The first step is one you’ve heard before: set a time to deal with your email, so that you compartmentalize it in your day. On the first day I committed to this change, I set a time. 11am, I’m settled and I’ve dealt with any crises, and it’s my first chance to sit down for an hour of uninterrupted work. Block out one hour, whenever it is that you can work. Don’t stress about how many times per day, just get started with one appointment with your inbox.
Step 2: Give it the time it deserves
This is the change. Even when I only check my email a few times a day, I would take the same approach: prune the crap, reply to the easy, and stall on the complex.
You can’t change the # of times you interact with email, unless you also change HOW you deal with it.
You’ve blocked out an hour for this. Give is the focused attention you would to interviewing a new hire. Know that you are doing NOTHING BUT EMAIL for the next hour, OR until you get to zero. No excuses. One hour. What does this do? It changes my approach to the complex ones. Instead of saying “this will take some serious thought, a bit of research, and a long reply, I’ll do it later”, now is the time. I have the space of the blocked time, and I know I have nothing to move onto until my inbox is empty. Prune the crap, reply to the easy, and 18 minutes into the hour you’re left with the complex.
Step 2.5: Give each message the time it deserves
Many messages involve subtasks, so I can’t turn off my wifi. Some require that I coordinate a meeting time with 2 people, so since I know I have an hour to work (42 mins and counting…) I’ll take 5 minutes and ping those two people in chat or call them. If an email has been sitting there for days because it involves calling my insurance company, pick up the effing phone. I’ll take tangents on individual messages, in order to get them out of my inbox, while working within the luxury of my blocked out hour. Other messages just get recorded in my task list (Evernote, worth a separate post), as TODOs for later.
By giving myself the luxury of a focused hour to deal with email, I removed the luxury of ignoring the complex messages, and forced away the excuses.
Step 3: Forget it. Selectively.
The first time I tried this, I got to zero in under 50 minutes, and both personal and work inboxes were completely empty for the first time in probably two years. More importantly, I had COMPLETELY DEALT WITH complex issues that had been languishing because they deserved more than a brief reply. As a founder and an exec (and husband etc) the most important issues can’t be resolved with a “sure, sounds good”. They require attention, thought, and response. I was finally able to do that.
That day, my mind kept returning to my inboxes, the heroin pellets of the modern workplace. And the immediate second thought was “oh, it’s empty.” Of course, more email came in every minute. But the most interesting thing was this: as I watched it come in, I realized how infrequently actually important email arrived. So even though I now knew that the inboxes weren’t empty, I knew they could wait until the next time I focused on them.
I don’t follow conventional wisdom and turn off my email notifications. I can watch mail come in on my iPhone notifications, and if something is important, I can jump on it. But I don’t open it every 10 minutes to delete things. That’s stupid. I’m able to only process my email 2-4 times a day because people can reach me on text and iMessage and phone, and by walking over to my desk.
I enjoy my most productive and focused work now, thanks to the knowledge that it is totally safe to ignore my email for hours at a time.
I’m slowly recovering from heroin pellets, and while my inboxen still creep up to dozens sometimes, I know I have time every day to sit and ensure that the important, thoughtful items get dealt with instead of delayed, and that’s incredibly satisfying. In the hours I go between checking my email, I’m able to do the focused, thoughtful work I need to for my company and my family. Focus and presence are everything.