Email has woven its way into our working lives and has become the single biggest use of our time at work. On average, we each receive 122 work emails and check our inbox 74 times each day, according to McKinsey. Just over a third of those emails have been shown to be important and worthy of attention, yet our constant checking consumes 28% of our work time. Perhaps worst still, this problem isn’t going anywhere, with the rate of email growth forecast at 3% annually.
It is a scary prospect when you feel like you are drowning in emails and it can also affect the quality of our working relationships and creative thinking. Time spent managing email has been proven to impact our ability to think differently and generate ideas as our brain flits from one issue to the next.
Identify the problem
It is unrealistic to think we can solve the problem entirely; after all, there is no unsubscribe button for internal emails yet. But the fact is that your worth is not determined by how quickly and eloquently you reply to your inbox. Rather, it is in the value you create for your organisation, which you are far more likely to deliver on if you are in control of your email, instead of feeling like it is in control of you.
First you need to identify the root cause of the issue you are trying to solve and it is generally one of three things: your email takes up time that could be spent more valuably on other things; you have developed an email checking habit that generates anxiety; or you feel that you have an uncontrollable volume of email. For some, it may be all three, but start with the most pressing first.
1. Change behaviour to create time for other things
Being more time-efficient starts with clarity about knowing specifically what you would use the time for and committing dedicated time to a change in behaviour. To give you an example, my daily commute starts at 6:23am and lasts for approximately 45 minutes. I had got into a routine of using my morning train journey to go through my emails, reply to things I had missed and create actions for people as soon as they got into the office.
It wasn’t the best start of the day for me, and it probably wasn’t for my team either. Instead, I have repurposed my morning commute from inbox to inspiration. I force myself – and it does take some force – not to open my email but instead to read articles and blogs and listen to podcasts. I have insight to share, ideas to apply and a more positive outlook to my day. It might not seem like a lot, but that’s almost four hours of creative thinking a week I have allowed into my diary. So start with what you feel you are missing and create the time for it.
2. Break the email checking habit
Email addiction is a real thing and research by the Journal of Occupational Health and Psychology found that a fixation on work email contributes to physical and mental burnout. Address this by taking a normal work week and tracking how many emails you get, how much time you spend in your inbox and how often you check it (free apps like Checky can help with this).
Work out what your trigger is. For me, it used to be the red flashing light on my Blackberry. If you are similar, try to turn off your automatic email notifications or work out whether you can check and reply to your emails at designated times throughout the day. Someone I work with at Virgin even has an auto-response email telling you when she will be able to reply, based on this approach. It is worth remembering that new habits take time to bed in, so keep at it.
3. Learn to prioritise
An inbox where you can’t see the wood for the trees is the worst kind. I used to have an international role, where I had hundreds of emails at all times of the day. It was impossible to stay on top of my inbox.
A technique I found useful was to automatically file anything I was CCd into in a separate folder that I reviewed once a day. It cut my email by two thirds and left me with only the critical things to answer in the moment. Recently, I have discovered Unroll.me, which is a great tool for ensuring newsletter and non-essential communications don’t clutter your inbox. You are essentially masking and not removing the issue, but it can help to provide clarity.
Of course I appreciate the irony that many of you are probably reading this article via an email newsletter. Hopefully, if you have got this far, it has been one of the worthwhile ones.