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Mistaking Connectivity for Connection: 7 ideas to get your life back from email

What did we do before email?

I started my adult working life in the late 90's, a time of dial up modems that sounded like distressed dolphins, rationed internet time and when emails were sent as a way of communicating something of significance, or as a sensible way of communicating across continents and time zones (not across the desk).

So seriously what did we do?

We picked up the phone and spoke to people.

Over the last few years working in cultural transformation and speaking with CEOs, executives, leaders and managers across the globe, the biggest drain on time and productivity they all cite is emails and meetings.

Email has become a disabler rather than an enabler of productivity

Research shows that on average we click on an email 2-3 times before we action it. Each click and perusal takes around 2 min. So for as little as 10 emails we are using around 40-60 mins a day. And let's face it 10 emails a day would feel like a holiday.

It steals our time, focus and productivity. Worse than that it makes us stupid.

Here are 7 ideas for you to experiment with to redress the balance. These have been developed following extensive conversations and experience with CEO's and execs of some of the world's biggest organisations.

Why not try your own email experiment?

1. Set aside dedicated time for emails

Different people work in different ways. If we are mindful of our own circadian rhythms most of us have a sweet spot of focus and productivity during the day. For many that is during the first 2-3 hours at work. Do you really want to waste that time doing emails?

Experiment with switching your email on after that period. Spend an hour at 11am and another hour later in the day reading and replying to the inbox. Safeguard your focused time and safeguard time to focus on emails. Don't mix. You will get through the mail more quickly and effectively.

2. Cut out the copies!

Emails breed emails. How much of your inbox is made up of mail that you have been cc'ed into?

How many do you actually read?

Set new parameters with the people you work with. Encourage them to only include people in an email if the recipient needs to know or is required to action. If that is the case the email should be directly addressed to them not a cc. Role model this behaviour. What happens if you set the parameter that you will only read cc's at the end of the week? If someone cc's you challenge them.

3. Clear and concise subject headings

Be clear and concise about the subject matter. The reader should have a good idea about what the email is about without having to open it.

Even better try prefixing the subject with an abbreviation that indicates what is required of the reader. For example:

  • FYA - For your action

  • FYI - For your information

  • FYC - For your consideration

4. Turn off the alerts.

We are literally addicted to the pop-up alerts. If we are focusing on a piece of work and the notification flashes on our screen it creates an itch that we need to scratch. So cut the irritant off at its source. Turn off the alert and refer to idea #1.

Every time I reply to an email, I’m loading the next trigger because I’m likely to get a response. That response is an external trigger prompting me through the hook once again. And that’s why email is such a hard habit to break. *

5. Remove email capability from mobile devices

Radical I know, but how many of us are triggered by email notifications on our phone. Sure, I understand that mobile working is useful and sometimes necessary. However, if an email is important enough to warrant actioning or replying are you really giving it the thought and attention it needs by hastily replying on your phone when walking between meetings?

With no email on your phone you remove the temptation to check emails during the weekend and in the evening when you should be getting on with your life.

Let's gain some context on this, has anyone ever lost their job for not replying to an email immediately?

6. Stop answering your emails in meetings

Quite frankly it is downright rude.

You wouldn't answer a phone call in a meeting so why is it any more acceptable to answer an email? The subconscious message you are sending out when you do this is "my stuff is more important than your stuff".

A meeting is likely to be more productive if everyone involved is concentrating on the matter in hand, less likely to require a follow up to address unresolved issues. Wouldn't we all like to go to less meetings?

7. Is email always the best way to communicate?

An email trail of twenty messages could probably be resolved with a 1-2 minute conversation. Just think how much time that would save.

If we want collaborative, engaged and trusting teams, face-to-face communication will always beat email hands down. Try defaulting to this or at least a phone call as a preferred means of communication.

Look up from your screen, look people in the eye and talk to them.

Give these a try and see what happens.

What tips do you have for managing your email? I'd love to hear. Send me a message....or even better, give me a call.

by anthony topham

*Nir Eyal, "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products"

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