Stuart Duff tells TJ how to avoid email overkill.
At first, email messaging was used as a way of sharing short bits of information and keeping those receiving them up to date. It enabled messages and tasks to be delivered quickly and widely. Somewhere down the line, though, this all changed – only to be further exacerbated during the first lockdown.
Emails have started to replace meetings and are used for everything from organising our calendars to problem-solving. Even before lockdown, it was not unusual for an email to be sent to recipients who are sitting next to each other in the same office, giving information with absolutely no interaction.
This wide misuse of email has led to full inboxes and, ultimately, has contributed to workplace burnout across the UK workforce. Email has become a relentless form of communication that, like an over-flowing pot, can feel as though it’s never-ending.
While some are better than others at dealing with it, email overkill impacts every one of us. We are all vulnerable to the demand from emails and the disruption it brings to our working day.
When it comes to coping mechanisms, there are two schools of thought: those who avoid it entirely and have to wade through on a daily basis to make sure they are picking out relevant messages, and those who tackle their inboxes by working through them on a regular basis.
Creating more chains of conversation only creates more work, with less focus on what we are really supposed to be doing
Neither of these approaches get to the root of the problem though, so here are a few alternative approaches that might help to get a grip on your inbox.
Email isn’t the only way to communicate
There are times when an email really is the only, or best, means of communication, be that with colleagues, clients, friends or even family. But more often, email is the least effective and sometimes laziest method of communication.
Sending a message via email means you have no way of gauging how the recipient has received it. When conversing with a person, you can see from their body language and their facial expression if they have understood what you’re saying, if they’re engaged and taking on board what is being said.
All of that is lost if your main form of communication is email. Taking away the human element will mean that there is a paper trail of what has been said, yet there is no way of being certain that a message has been understood and delivered.
When sending an email, always ask yourself if it is necessary. Is a phone call possible? Or a face–face conversation, be that in person or via video conference? If you can, try to utilise one of these options. After all, a strong, inclusive leader and colleague will always opt for human interaction over a digital message.
Be in control of your time
Email is one of the biggest distractions in our working day. A full inbox can generate an adrenaline ‘buzz’ and falsely reinforce a sense of importance.
An effective way to deal with your inbox is to tackle it twice a day. Half an hour in the morning and again in the evening. Filing your email appropriately will help you work through the backlog quicker and locate what you need. Whilst it will certainly feel alien, where possible, save responding to urgent emails until your evening session.
This should mean that by the time you open your laptop in the morning, there will be a reply and you’ll have managed the speed and traffic of not just your inbox, but your day.
Recognise when you’re procrastinating
Often, by working through our inboxes instead of tackling our to-do lists, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t procrastinating. Creating more chains of conversation only creates more work, with less focus on what we are really supposed to be doing. Responding to 20 or so emails could result in an additional 20 conversations, taking up more time and space within a day.
If you find yourself hovering in your inbox, remind yourself that it isn’t a productive way to spend your time, and try to recognise what it is that you’re putting off.
Use the rock, pebble, sand analogy
Fundamentally, emails are a distraction. The majority don’t add to what we’re doing and ultimately, they waste time, something which we easily lose sight of. At work, it can help to bear in mind the rock, pebble, sand analogy.
In a nutshell, the jar represents our day and every day we face the challenge of filling the jar with rocks, pebbles and sand – all of our competing priorities. The rocks represent the most important projects or pieces of work you need to do, the pebbles are the things that need to be done but aren’t critical, while the sand stands for items on our to-do list that are unimportant and fill time.
If you fill the jar with sand, there is no way you’ll get the important rocks and pebbles in. But if you prioritise – start with the rocks, then add the pebbles, and then allow the sand to fit around the rocks and pebbles, you’ll get everything into the jar.
When filling our days, therefore, we need to identify what our rocks are, and prioritise those important pieces of work over everything else. The grains of sand are small and easy to tackle, but endless and often don’t add to what we’re doing. They should only hold a small amount of time in our day.
The final word
Email is a practical tool that works perfectly when used properly. It is a straightforward and functional way to exchange information and, as a result, billions of emails around the globe are exchanged each day. However, there are clearly underlying psychological challenges that come with relying on it too heavily. We all need to be more open to other, better means of communication.
Making personal changes, like remembering to pick up the phone, should help to forge a workstyle that is less centred around email and more focused and productive. But change needs to be within the organisation as well. The likelihood is that employers allow widespread use of email to happen because they are in the same position themselves, with no strategies to resolve it.
About the author
Stuart Duff is partner and head of development at Pearn Kandola