Imagine you are at home and outside your house there is an old-fashioned letterbox, the kind you see in American movies. You are working on something very important in your study and yet every five minutes you get up and go outside to see if any mail has arrived. You take out the letters and shuffle through them, maybe hold one or two up to the sun to get a look at what’s inside. But you don’t open them or bring them back into the house. You shove them back into the letterbox along with all the other old letters. You then walk back into the house and try to return to your work.
This might sound like absurd behaviour, but it’s what many of us do every day with our email. We constantly “check” it without doing anything with it. And by checking, our mind is doing the equivalent of that walk from the desk out to the driveway and back again. As many studies have shown, it takes more time than you might realise to bring your concentration back to what you were doing before checking the email (the cost of switching). Furthermore, part of your mind continues to mull over those emails that you know are there and need answering, and this affects your ability to concentrate fully on other tasks.
What is the solution? Well, the obvious and yet most difficult is to just stop constantly checking the email. Switch off any notifications that alert you to new mail. Set specific times or intervals when you will check for new mail. Also, use the Pomodoro technique to concentrate on one task at a time for periods of 25 minutes. Another strategy is to never just “check” what is in your inbox, always take some action while you are there. Aim to empty you inbox every time you open it. This is called “Inbox Zero” and it is a great way to prioritise email and keep your mind free to focus on the important stuff.
The central idea of Inbox Zero is that your email inbox should only be used for temporarily collecting email, not for storing them. The strategy comes from Merlin Mann, who based it on David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done”.
The first thing that you need to do is set up 3 folders within in your email – I like to call them “Urgent”, “Later” and “Archive”. In most email providers today, Archive has been set up for you by default. The reasoning for only having 3 folders is to be able to sort your emails as quickly as possible, which is especially useful if you are accessing email on your phone while waiting for the train or sitting on the toilet!. The more folders you have, the longer it will take you to sort your emails, and it will sometimes lead to hesitation and confusion as one email could belong in more than one folder. The search capabilities of email clients nowadays mean that with a few keywords you can usually find an email quite quickly, even more so if you refine your search with a date-range and whether or not it had attachments.
Once you have your 3 folders set up, the idea is that every time you open your inbox you quickly sort all the mail that is there into those 3 folders. Once your InBox is empty, and if you have some time at hand, you then start replying to the emails in the Urgent Inbox. It will depend on your work and the culture of communication in your organisation, but one way to approach the Urgent folder is to try and empty it every two hours. So, every 2 hours, set time aside to sort your mail and respond to all the urgent messages. Try and respond to all the message in the Later folder before you go home in the evening. There are no actions to be taken with the messages that go into the Archive folder. Some people like to add another folder to the system called “Hold”, which is for emails you need to respond to but first you are waiting for information from someone else.
Email hygiene and healthy behaviour
When we have important work to do, it’s very easy to look for anything to delay starting. For those of us older than 35, you probably didn’t grow up with email and instant messaging and many of us don’t have the discipline to not constantly check what we think is being said to us or about us in the digital world. Here are a few important healthy habits to try and maintain so email doesn’t take over your life and affect your offline relationships
- As I said above in the section on Inbox Zero, never just “check” your email. Always take some action when you open up your inbox. Additionally to the 3-folder strategy, apply the 3D’s to every email: Do it – Respond to it (if it takes less than a minute); Defer it – Put it one of the 3 folders; or Delegate it – forward it to someone else if you’re not the person to be dealing with this.
- Add actionable emails to your to-do list. Popular to-do software like Todoist and Omnifocus allow you (or others) to forward emails to your to-do lists so they become tasks.
- Turn off notifications on all your electronic devices. This also means vibrations, not only sounds. It will be impossible for you to concentrate on anything for any meaningful length of time if you are constantly being nudged and poked every time a message arrives.
- Try to only check email every 30 minutes. For people that use Pomodoro’s to get work done, use the break to check your email and sort it into the 3 folders. Then, later you can programme an entire Pomodoro (e.g. the last one before lunch) to reply to all the urgent emails, and maybe get some of the “Later” ones also done.
- Don’t check email just before going to sleep. Many of us have problems getting a good night sleep, and the last thing you want to be thinking about just as you’re nodding off, is that worrisome email you just read from a colleague.
- Try not to check your email in the morning before you’ve written your to-do list for the day. The danger is that your day will become about responding to email instead of your deciding for yourself what your priority tasks should be.
The Write-Respond order to sending an email
Have you ever intended to send someone an attachment with an email only to get a reply to say that attachment wasn’t included? Or have you ever sent an email and later read it to think that it made no sense?
We send a huge amount of emails every day, but it’s still worthwhile to remember the proper order of actions when composing one (I’ve adapted this from David Spark’s book “Email.”
- First thing, before your write the message, add any attachment you intend to send with the email.
- Then compose the body of the message
- Write the subject line (doing this after having written the message will make it much clearer to you what the message is about)
- Write the “To:” and “CC:” fields
- Finally, proof read and press send.
Write better emails
I’ll finish by outlining some useful tips for making your emails clearer, efficient and easy to respond to.
- An effective subject line should be: General topic – specific topic. E.g. Meeting on 12th June – Document to read before coming.
- In the body of the email, its best to write 1-3 sentences to introduce the subject matter and give any background. Follow that with your questions, thoughts, etc., and give each of these a bullet point. Visually, this helps the recipient immensely quickly see the main points of your mail. It will also help with the next piece of advice:
- Reply inline with original message – this means that you insert your response to questions within the text of the sender’s email. If the original email had bullet points, this will be all the easier to do.
- If you send people attachments, always tell them how long it takes to read them. We are all bombarded with information every day, and the natural reaction to being sent a document is to leave it for later and then forget about it. However, if you send me a document and tell me in the email that it only takes five minutes to read (or the summary section takes 5 minutes to read), you are greatly improving the possibilities that I will open it.
- Don’t ask open-ended questions in emails e.g. any ideas? what are your thoughts? etc. Ask closed, concrete questions and you are more likely to get a useful reply and not annoy the recipient.
- Finally, if you send an email to a large group of people, don’t put all the addresses in the “To:” field, or else everyone will get every reply and some people will be angry that you shared their contact details. Instead, put the list of emails into the “BCC:” field.