I was recently discussing email management with a member of the Info-Tech community. She asked: “Well, what do you do about email?” It’s always dangerous to ask an analyst an open question!
Email dependence is a bad thing. We are all conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to respond to the “ping” of the inbound message. Academic literature indicates that lessening our reliance on email generally improves productivity due to a decrease in task switching. Removing email also decreases the stress hormone cortisol. Increased cortisol is strongly linked with pretty much every poor health outcome you can imagine. The decrease in cortisol might be due to the removal of the stimulus – the email “ping” – or it could due to increased movement. Without email, people just move more. More steps and less sitting is generally a good thing.
But there’s a problem. We can’t just get rid of email since it is crucial to getting things done in knowledge-centric environments like Info-Tech. Other enterprises have had some success in diverting task management from email towards other tools like collaboration suites, document repositories, and activity streams. The less structured our tasks, however, the more we rely on very fluid communication media. For the most part, however, we depend on email.
Email is like red wine: a little bit is tasty and healthy but swilling rot gut will kill you.
So, what should we do about email? It’s not the technology; it’s our reaction to it. In general, email pain comes from two distinct vectors: distraction, and maintenance. Adopt tactics to deal with each of these vectors.
A. Distraction. Email disrupts our ongoing ability to get things done. It diverts us from the tasks we need to accomplish and effectively breaks our day up into vanishingly small segments. Knowledge workers generally require relatively large block of time to complete research, review, and writing tasks.
- Eliminate the distraction. Turn off alerts and pop-ups. Don’t be a slave to email. Time-sensitive messages will find their way to you via synchronous communication like phone and IM.
- Make time(s) for email. Set specific windows for checking and responding to email. In general, 30-minute windows first thing in the morning, immediately after lunch, and before the end of the day are appropriate.
- Use a Pomodoro if you’re jonesin’. The Pomodoro technique is a time management technique involving a timer that breaks the day into 25-minute intervals followed by a 5-minute break. Set a timer – I like www.timer-tab.com – and get to work. When the timer is up, check your email.
B. Maintenance. The ever-increasing inbox is an additional source of stress. Individuals are generally either filers with byzantine collections of folders or pilers with one large inbox. Filers must devote more energy into maintaining their organization system than pilers but get better retrieval… except they don’t (at least for paper-based systems). Generally, elaborate folder systems don’t facilitate information recall or retrieval except for very tightly defined project or process requirements. Most ad-hoc or personal classification systems represent an individual’s efforts to make sense of disparate information. Unfortunately, that sense is fluid and changes with the individual’s experience thereby undermining the significance of the classification system!
- Do your spring cleaning. Adopt a zero-email inbox… at least some of the time. Empty your inbox on a regular basis. Some people maintain empty on a constant basis, others do it on Fridays, or at the end of the month. Collecting too much junk foils search tools (or, in information-retrieval speak, lessens precision).
- Keep things flat. Filers see no advantages. Process email into the only two folders that you really need:
- @Action. If something needs to be done with a message put it into the @Action folder. Endeavour to keep this folder empty. Dedicate a Pomodoro or two to getting it cleared out.
- @Reference. If you don’t know if you will need something or not, put it into the @Reference folder. Knowledge workers are generally information-hoarders and collect far more than they really need. Don’t agonize about where messages should go. Just dump them into @Reference and use search to access them on the very odd chance that you need to access them.
- An aside: Why “@Action” instead of just “Action”? Appending the @ symbol will float these folders to the top of your list of folders. Keep the old folders or just move them into @Reference.
Experiment with productivity tools where appropriate. Instead of the @Action folder you could turn messages into Tasks or create different Task entries. Email management isn’t a replacement for task management but your email management strategy has to integrate with task management! Read Getting Things Done by David Allen for more guidance on this topic.
Build a tabernacle for blessed email. The @Reference folder works well for messages of dubious value. Some email, however, has very definite value. Move these messages into a stable repository that deals with documents of all kinds including PDF documents, images, recordings, web pages, etc. This repository could be a OneNote, Evernote, or even a file share (but friends don’t let friends use file shares).
That said, I’ve just mentioned a few tactics for dealing with email. Our roles change constantly and we need to be fluid in how we manage information. Add these tactics to the toolbox but don’t treat them as finished projects or SOPs!