Have you ever lamented the fact that you seem to spend your entire working life up to your neck in email threads, the majority of which you don’t really need to be in?
What if I said that you could ditch this way of working for good? What if I said it’ll have no impact on those emailing you? And what if I said you’ll be more productive, more efficient and more effective as a result?
At the start of September I returned from a couple of weeks in France with a new-found determination to change my working life for the better. I implemented several new working practices focused on eliminating the ‘stuff’ that we all do that contributes absolutely nothing to the bottom line. Pointless meetings, needless travel, conference calls where you make little contribution, hours spent reading emails you don’t need to read…you know the sort of thing.
Among these new practices are two that have had a major impact on me. The first is turning off the majority of notifications on my mobile, and the second is checking my email no more than two or three times per day. The amount of time I have saved with these two initiatives alone is incredible, and as a result I’m more productive and I’m producing higher quality work.
Email Destroys Concentration
My mobile used to be a constant interruption to work. Beeps and buzzes from email, Twitter, Facebook, messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram…I didn’t realise quite how much of a distraction these were until I no longer received them. But without the endless interruptions I’m free to concentrate for longer periods of time without having to ‘reset’ my brain after every tweet or text.
As things stand now, I can get the same amount done in half the time. And I’m not exaggerating.
It’s the lack of checking email that’s been the biggest revelation. I started this off as an experiment, unsure of whether I’d be able to get away without having a browser window logged into email all day and alerts letting me know when someone had contacted me.
I resolved to check my email at noon and 4pm, and I set an autoresponder to inform anyone who emailed of this. It read:
“Due to high workload I’m currently checking and responding to email twice per day at 12.00 noon and 4.00pm. If you require urgent assistance that cannot wait until either midday or 4pm, please contact me on 07533 026066. Thanks for understanding my move to more efficiency and effectiveness, which will help me to accomplish more for the benefit of my clients.”
In reality I do check it first thing in the morning just in case, but I don’t action anything unless it’s urgent.
As it is, I needn’t worry. Take a guess at how many people have called me in the last two months as a result of receiving that message. Thirty? Twenty? Ten?
One. And ironically, that was just a few days ago while this post was in draft from someone who needed specific and immediate advice on a social media crisis.
But other than, I have not received one single call from someone who was not happy to wait a couple of hours for a response.
Furthermore, I’ve had several people contact me to ask how it’s going and tell me how they wish they could implement it themselves.
Kind of puts the hours you spend in your inbox into perspective, doesn’t it?
The Recipient’s Perspective
I’ve been working closely with CCD PR in London for a few months on a couple of client projects.
Senior Account Manager Isabella Venour says: “When I first received the automated email, I was a little taken aback and had a moment’s panic. I pictured Paul battling through a mountain of emails and not replying for days. What if I had an emergency? But mainly, I experienced a pang of wonder (or was it jealousy? Would my boss let me do the same?).”
“I quickly learnt that I could pick up the phone for anything urgent (which in hindsight I realise is actually very rare) and now I am simply mindful of his time and am instead comforted by the idea that he will read my message in detail, in his own time and as a result give me a detailed, thoughtful reply.”
Isabella’s last point is extremely pertinent.
How many times have you fired off a reply to an email in the last week more to get the email out of your inbox than anything else?
If you’re being honest with yourself, I reckon you spend more time firefighting emails than actually thinking about them and replying in any meaningful manner. I know this, as when I worked in agency land, that’s what I did.
In fact, I developed a complex set of rules in Outlook to filter all incoming emails into folders depending on who they were from, what they were about and whether they were sent to me direct or whether I was CCd in. Only emails sent direct to me and mentioning one of a set of keywords made it to my inbox. At least half were directed straight to the trash folder without me even seeing them.
I developed and evolved this after returning from holiday one year and wading through 800 emails to find that only 20 were of value. Since then I’ve been pretty ruthless, but never so much as the last two months.
But although on the one hand it may be described as ‘ruthless’, I now take the time to properly read my email and to reply in full and as best I can to people. I try never to fob anyone off, and the result is happier clients and less back-and-forth in email threads.
A World With Less Email
Having carried out a successful trial, I’ve now reworded that autoresponder slightly to better emphasise maximising efficiency and productivity instead of high workload (which may not necessarily be true). And I’ll be keeping this approach permanently.
The thing is, you can do this too. Imagine if we all did; how much more we’d get done!
I know you’re going to say that you can’t because your clients or colleagues or boss won’t like it. I think you’d be surprised how reasonable most people are. Unless their business deals in human life or crisis management, then I’m pretty sure there’s very little that can’t wait for an hour or two. Does the world fall down when you’re in a meeting? No, so why should it if you stop sitting in your inbox all day?
Just give people a way of contacting you easily if they need to and leave them to judge whether anything’s really urgent or not.
You might also say that the people you email ‘expect’ an immediate response. If they do, it’s only because you’ve trained them to be so demanding. You’ve normalised it. But if they expected a response within two or three hours, that would become the norm.
Maybe you’re thinking “yes, but I just get too much email to do this”? That’s the entire point. Too much. Trust me on this – you could easily cut out a minimum of half of your email with no detrimental effect on your work.
And I know you’re probably also thinking “but I have to send emails too”. Fine. I do too. But I log in, send my email and log out. Sometimes I scan my inbox, but I don’t really need to as there’s never anything that can’t wait for a couple of hours until the time I’ve designated to reply to people. And, very importantly, in that designated time I give people my full attention.
Stop checking your email. It’s the smart way to work.