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Don’t get lost in your email

Approx 4 min. read

Brian Sena

May 12, 2020

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Wherever you are in the world, you have likely been impacted in some way by the current Pandemic. If you are part of the Gig Economy or a knowledge worker of any kind, and are working remotely, there is no doubt that email is one of the most frequently used arrows in your quiver. Email was created to save you time, and eliminate friction in your day — ironically enough, it does exactly the opposite for most people.

The first official electronic mail (email) dates back to the early 1970’s, and took quite a while before it gained mass adoption. Prior to email being the benchmark for professional communication, knowledge workers were able to limit distractions simply based on how long it would take to mail a physical document. On average, 3 days to send, 1 day to evaluate, and 3 days to wait for a response. Plus or minus one day on either side, it made things a bit more manageable to limit distractions.

Now, emails ping multiple devices, senders expect almost instantaneous responses and most people use email as their to-do list. You would be surprised on how much time you are likely losing each day to email distractions. One of the most impactful and effective strategies to reduce getting lost in the email vortex is to change the way you receive notifications. 64% of people set their notifications to have a visual or auditory signal whenever a new email is received. If you fall within this camp, it’s time to change things up.

We’ve compiled 10 key tips to help you limit distractions and manage email more effectively.

Only check your email if you can take action

Why stress yourself out and add to your cognitive load, if you can’t even take action in the moment? A common response to that question is, “I like to think about things in advance, and process them over time.” Aka, you like to procrastinate and set up masochistic challenges to overcome. You would not, or should not, turn on a faucet 2 hours before you intend to wash your hands — Treat email the same way.


Track how much you check

This step is something that is easy to take for granted and an item you might think is a waste of time. However, if you can capture and report on how many times you check your email throughout a day, it’s simple to assign a duration of time each time you lose focus. The numbers are staggering in terms of how much time is lost, “checking email”. The average knowledge worker checks their email 11 times an hour, and subsequently 88 times for every work day. This does not count peeping your mobile phone at night. The other side of the coin is that on average, those same knowledge workers are only spending 35 minutes per day on actual email workflow. When the time to check outweighs the time to learn, it’s time to change things up.


Set aside a dedicated time each day to check

This takes discipline, but if you schedule a routine time to check email throughout the day, it will help you stay on task. For those working in email heavy jobs, your schedule might be more than once per day, but that’s on a case-by-case basis. If you have specific urgencies, or clients that take precedence, you can add those clients to a dedicated VIP list, or filter which notifications you see. Having a 24 hour turnaround time is actually quite reasonable, especially if emails take time.


Achieve Hyperfocus on emails

The information compiled in this list of tips for limiting email distractions is taken nearly right out of Chris Bailey’s book, Hyperfocus. This tip of achieving hyperfocus might be the most valuable as well. Think of hyper focus as achieving full flow state, and working with complete focus on a task where you have a clearly delineated ending time as well. Since you’re already limiting distractions, this should be attainable when jumping into email. Set a time of 20 minutes, and see how much you can get done in that time.


Keep email on your desktop only

The thought will likely make you cringe, but removing an email application off of everything except your desktop will prevent email from taking over your life. When paired with only checking email once a day, you will immediately begin recovering focus and time throughout your day.


To-do lists should not be your inbox

Your fastest gateway to an anxiety attack is having your email inbox as your to-do list. Remember, every time a new email comes in, that technically signals to your brain that your to-do list is growing. For each micro second that it takes to file and email, and send something to the trash, can be spent on solving complex business challenges. Being able to sort your to-do list, and rank tasks by priority also helps limits distractions.


Private and Public

Design your emails channels to be private and exclusive to a small group of folks, as well as having another public email address to become a catch-all. Knowing you are creating a disciplined VIP list of folks within your organization that can reach out to you, this will allow you to set up a handful of more checkpoints that you can brush up on internal communications.


Take email breaks or “black out” periods

Email can become overwhelming, even with the right measures and disciplines put in place. Use your “out-of-office” or auto responder when you want to step back from email for a planned freeze. Your colleagues and clients will respond much more positively to this than you think. To avoid any friction points in Customer Service, you can create an alternative for folks to call you directly. The break will prevent you from burning out, or building resentment around email.


Never send more than five sentences

Our brains are conditioned to absorb materials in approximately 7 word increments at a time. The longer the sentence structure, the more likely it is that readers will become lost. Also, crafting an email to be more than 5 sentences will lose a reader, and begin to become ineffective. Any email that needs to be longer than this, should preferably done over a phone call or fast meeting.


Do not send emails when you are emotionally charged up

If you have ever heard someone tell you to write a letter, wait a day, and then decide whether or not you still want to send it. This counsel is also fantastic for managing emails. Sending an email that can come off as irrational or written in haste will almost always create more pain and lost time. When in doubt, wait it out.

If you take on even five of these tips to reduce distractions, you will break free from the hand cuffs of being controlled by email.


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