A technology we created to save us is threatening to destroy us. No, this isn’t another piece about robots. I’m talking about email.
Democratic, direct, free and instantaneous – the very things that made us wonder at its limitless potential have since made it a five-letter-word with the power to make any office worker want to slowly direct their head against anything hard.
A byword for all that is unproductive, stressful and downright demoralising about the working day. What is commonly cited in studies and surveys as the number one source of work stress.
My own email narrative is typical: for too long, my inbox was killing me.
Killing in the slow, low-level anxiety and mild chest pains kind of way. Killing time too, time I could have been spending on better things than a seven long email chain on which meeting room to meet in for a meeting in three weeks time.
You answer a few, and several more are born, like germ cells under a microscope. Or bamboo.
I’d flit between two wildly different email extremes. To focus on my actual work and let the email hang. To focus instead on the meaty, mission-critical big stuff I was actually paid to do. Do your worst I’d say, except that it would build around me like a fog and in less than a day the unanswered volume would start to loom and choke.
So then I’d vow to tame it, control it and maybe even with God’s will clear it like an oil rig fire. After hours of focus, head-spinning and exhausted this email clearance victory has happened barely a handful of times in my working life. A sweet and rare moment of workplace triumph. Except it was 4pm. And I hadn’t done any actual work.
I wondered if there could ever be a middle road? A world in which you could have your email cake and eat it, where you kept the inbox beast suppressed but without the wasted time and fuss. Where you regained control of your priorities, your sanity, your working life.
People have written systems, programs, apps and countless books in an effort to find this office-based Holy Grail. I know, I've now read most of them. And some of them actually work. Having scoured the world for the habits of effective emailers, my inbox is smaller, less demanding and less likely to give me cardiac twinges. Here are 10 suggestions to try out for yourself:
1 Close Down Your Email Program
That’s right, close it down, right now. Feels good, doesn’t it. Now make a vow to only open it again in set slots throughout the day.
Depending on how critical email is to your day to day work this could be once per day (ideal but unlikely) right up to 10 minute slots at the top of each hour for heavy email users, as recommended by productivity writer Leo Babuta of Zenhabits.
Any longer than 15 minutes sessions and "you risk brain atrophy, creative energy leakage and the world telling you what you should do," says Magdalena Bak-Maier, authour of Get Productive! Boosting Your Productivity And Getting Things Done.
These are your email sessions that you can schedule into the calendar.
Whatever your initial reaction to this idea, understand that this is the number one move of people who don’t let email get out of control. Too chicken to try it? Lots of reasons unique to your life that this would never work?
Try it for one day and you’re already on the path to enlightenment. If not, at least turn off the cat purr notification sound in Outlook. Jesus, that’s schoolboy stuff.
2 Don’t Do Email Early
It’s the obvious move. Open the email at the start of the day to get it out of the way. Wrong. “Always start the day with your single most important task, to build your focus and motivation before turning your email on," says self-help authour Magdalena Bak-Maier.
Basically, this is the most valuable time for most so don't waste it on email grunt work.
3 The Four Magic Words - Delete, Delete, Delete, Delete
Actually, it’s ‘delete, file, archive, reply’ but it didn’t look as dramatic as a sub-head and I’m trying to ram the point home here.
Delete: use this with abandon. Think: “give me a reason to keep you in my inbox. Delete because you don’t like the subject head, the capitalization, the person’s surname. Don’t be afraid. Like the good sperm, the strong will find a way through.
Respond: give yourself two minutes per email to deal with anything that needs dealing with in real-time.
File: anything requiring longer than two minutes, file into a folder called To Respond or similar. You can do this in your next email session.
Archive: only if you think you might need it in future. Otherwise, you know what to do.
4 Nothing Stays In The Inbox
Zero. Nada. And other languages that translate into your new golden rule - your goal is zero email in your running inbox. Believe it, it's possible.
5 It’s OK To Be Blunt. Really
In fact, be prepared to be rude. You’re not a bad guy, but your mission here is speed, productivity and your medium-term mental health so if there are a few etiquette casualties along the way, so be it.
Forget the His and Dears and Best Wishes and Hope you are wells wherever they aren’t essential. Become known as the guy who writes straightforward, clear, to-theth-point emails if you have to. Noone said this was going to be easy.
6 Become Part Of The Solution Not The Problem
You hate those people who never lie down on email right? The ones who keep coming back with open-ended questions and chains and cc’ing everyone who’s ever been relevant to the email so they have to spend time managing their email too.
The ones who seem to revel in the medium, born to dominate and assert themselves through the arena of electrocinic messaging. Don’t let them play you at their strengths. Be assertive by using language that closes down these free for alls by stating your position and what your next action will be. Done.
7 Use The Phone/Your Legs
Remember them? Go and speak to people in the office and get an answer in real-time. Even better, you’ll have a few less to deal with at the end of the day. And tell people internally that you don't want to be on threads that aren't relevant. "Make three to five phone calls each day that would otherwise be emails that take longer to write and result in more email," says Magdalena Bak-Maier.
8 Save Links For Later
Simple. You get sent a link to some viral video or article that you have to read. Great. But unless you want your concentration constantly interrupted by Jimmy Fallon clips, you've got to take a hard view and play the long game. Save it for the commute.
9 Try Not To Check Out Of Work Hours
You think you’re at that stage where it’s necessary, where it looks good, where it makes you feel important, where you think that you’re helping to keep the place running smoothly like some kind of small-time CEO type. Except CEOs don’t. All you’re doing is encouraging the virus to spread.
10 Declare Email Bankrupty
One for the most extreme cases perhaps but beautiful in its simplicity and audaciousness. If your email situation is especially out of control and impossible to manage, you could join author Tim Ferris and countless others who have deleted everything in their inbox in a bid for a fresh start. The protocol here is to send a generic message to everyone in your inbox that you are starting from scratch and if it's really that important they can send the message again. It could just change your life.