One’s email inbox has been a source of great frustration and complaint at least for the past decade at work. This has evolved into a challenge that has served to impact one’s productivity and sense of control. The inbox has become something to be dreaded and for many, an obstacle to getting needed work done.
The problem is simple. One can’t avoid the inbox as that became and has remained the overwhelming leading communication method within organizations. And when we consider the past three+ years living under the COVID umbrella, the situation has become worse. Under COVID and the related remote working, what used to be walking up to another person in the office to get an answer or information we wanted became much more reliant on email to achieve the same purpose.
So, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that it interrupts our being in our ‘flow state’ … a term devised by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura. Flow state describes a feeling where, under the right conditions, you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing. This is when one’s body and mind are fluid and allows us to be totally absorbed by and deeply focused on something beyond the point of distraction. It feels like time has slowed. You are completely absorbed by the task at hand and with heightened senses this creates an effortless momentum. It’s what some refer to as being ‘in the zone’. When working on something of importance, the resulting focus brings about intensity toward the task. It leads to a sense of clarity, and one knows exactly what he/she wants to do from minute to minute.
The problem arises when working in this ‘flow state’ and being productive as needed, along comes our email. Be it a ‘ding’ from our phone or computer or just conditioning that that has made us feel dependent on the need to check emails, our ability to focus and ‘flow’ is out the window. Therefore, the real question that must be asked is what one can do about this and regain more control over the things that must get done. Here are some ways to achieve this:
- Allocate specific times on your calendar during each day for checking email.
Treating the email inbox like we treat an appointment or meeting brings the needed structure and related control. This will allow focus on key items that require our uninterrupted focus to complete. It also serves to set boundaries for oneself that, when adhered to will increase a person’s productivity.
- With times scheduled on one’s calendar, turnoff notifications of incoming mail.
The dings on phone or computer are no longer needed once committed to a scheduled approach to checking emails. Leaving them in place only serves as a distraction and works against what one wants to accomplish.
- View the email inbox as a place to receive and process messages … only.
As such there is a commitment to act in some way with each item present. Having several hundred emails in an inbox renders the inbox as useless. The impact on the individual that allows that to happen is a combination of overwhelm, frustration and anything but productive.
- Create email folders that allow inbox emails to be moved to the appropriate file.
Sort inbox mail to the likes of ‘urgent response’ … ‘fyi’ … ‘industry info’ or any other category that is meaningful to the recipient. This will enable one to sort the inbox appropriately and reduce the emails requiring response or action that day to be receive the needed focus. This organized approach will provide a sense of control to the user.
- Commit to touching an email ONLY once.
Making this commitment means that when an email is in our inbox, we will take some Thus, we deal with this just once rather than leaving it in the inbox to see repeatedly. We move it to another folder, or we immediately respond to it and it then moved. Too often it is read … and read … and read only to remain in that inbox.
- Apply and follow a 1-minute rule.
Because you have allocated time on your calendar to this ‘email appointment’ when an email can be responded to and thus managed within one minute … do it. That email can then be moved to a client folder or any other one that is appropriate.
- An email response is not always the most efficient response.
We have become so email prone that responding in the most efficient and effective way is overlooked. Differentiating as related to what the intention is can lead to communicating in the most effective manner. If the desire is simply to update a co-worker or customer on a situation, emails work well. If, however, you are looking to get or receive information that will enable you to proceed with your work at hand, a telephone call can prove to be faster and beneficial.
While email has become the glue that holds companies together, it also is one of our biggest distractions. The statics pertaining to the percentage of time that individuals spend dealing with daily emails is staggering. There is a clear value to any form of email-like communication that conveys needed information without the need to communicate in-person or via telephone. And yet, without self-control and management it can and does have a significant impact on the level of productivity experienced throughout the organization.
Sharing your personal plan with other co-workers might get their interest in taking this challenge for themselves. The issue is widespread throughout most organizations. If this were the beginning of the new year, taking steps as suggested above would make for a terrific resolution. Of course, there is nothing to prevent any of us from making a mid-year resolution. Why not? All will probably like it!