An email about email

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Work in Progress

Work in Progress

April 6 · Issue #29 · View online

The newsletter about work


Hi there,
It can be a struggle to find concentrated work time these days. And once you’ve got it, it’s harder than ever to shut out all the distractions so you can get into a flow and get things done. Email and notifications don’t help.
Don’t know about you, but I’ve been dealing with loads more email since I’ve been Staying Home. But even regular amounts of email can eat up precious work time. What works for me? Dealing with email in batches, at a time I choose. And ignoring it the rest of the time.
Here’s how.
(Want to go straight to the tips? Scroll down to Things to try.)

In 1971 Ray Tomlinson sent a message from one computer to another. And electronic mail was born. 
He later told The Verge, “At the time there was no really good way to leave messages for people. The telephone worked up to a point, but someone had to be there to receive the call.” Email was the revolution everyone was waiting for. A free and easy way to leave messages for someone else – whether or not they were available at the time. Asynchronous communication. 
Now 50 years later, email is bigger than ever. From time to time, someone will introduce the next surefire email killer – Slack for instance, or remember Yammer? – but so far we only send MORE emails each year. In 2017, estimates hit 269 billion and in 2019 the counter passed 293 billion.
Beyond the numbers, something else is going on. We’ve come to see email as synchronous communication. A study in the UK showed that a work email is opened on average within 6 seconds. That makes it almost faster than picking up the phone to get in touch.
But the ease of sending emails and the speed at which they’re read means we expect people to respond faster. And we feel pressure to respond quickly ourselves. Add the many new forms of communication to the mix – like WhatsApp, Slack, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, video calls and online learning platforms – and the question of whether we’re now better off is a real one.
All this is to say: I’m convinced we’d be happier using email as it was intended. Asynchronously. Where the recipient decides when to read and when to respond. Research like the above study supports this view.
And while researchers disagree as to the precise impact interruptions have on us and our work, they do agree on one thing: Constant attempts to multitask may feel productive, but at the end of the day the effect is more likely a negative than a positive one.
Dealing with email in batches
So how can we use email better? And I don’t mean shortcut keys and plugins and other tips to help you process your email faster. If you want to make a big difference you’ll have to try something more drastic: Give email its proper place in your workday. Spoiler! That doesn’t mean checking your email every 5 minutes.
From not using email at all to email dominating your day – a range of options.
From not using email at all to email dominating your day – a range of options.
Where are you on this spectrum? If you’re like most people, you get notifications for every new message. That puts you in the red zone on the right. No notifications, but a notorious refresher? Your score is orange.
If you want to concentrate on your work, it helps to deal with email in a structured way. Dealing with email in batches means you don’t have to switch between tasks as much, you’ll have fewer interruptions of precious work time, and bonus: more chance of hitting a flow in your work. It can even lower stress, and who can’t use some of that right now. All fine reasons for confining email to two or three focused sessions per day.
Things to try this week
  • For starters, reserve a block of email-free time: say, mornings from 9 to 12. Can you work for a few hours without checking your email?
  • You could also turn it around: Schedule 3 times a day (a half-hour each) to check and reply to email. That can help you ignore it the rest of the day.
  • Does 3 times a day sound too hard? You can start out checking email once an hour, and then gradually drop some of the checks until you have 3 left.
  • In between batches, shut your email down. Close it. Consider removing email from your phone, or move the icon to the second screen so checking is no longer a reflex. And turn off notifications.
  • Try Email When Ready, a free Chrome extension that hides your whole inbox until you’re ready for it. Or try Inbox Pause from Boomerang, a paid alternative, which also works for Outlook.
  • I also wanted to share this article by John Zeratsky. His approach is quite similar. He also adds an interesting twist to the different scheduled blocks for email.
That’s all for this week, hope it helps! Let me know what works for you when it comes to email, and what you still need a solution for. If you want to tell friends and colleagues about your experiment with email, forward them this message. Odds are, they’ll see it soon.
Next week: I’ll walk you through setting up a feature in Gmail that helps pre-sort incoming messages. I swear by it.
Take care and have a good week,
Rick
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