The best advice I ever got on dealing with emails? Just don’t read them! At least not first thing in the morning.
Most people I know check their emails as soon as they get up. Ideally before having breakfast or going to the bathroom… Many people I know label answering emails on the spot (and almost 24/7) super-productive.
The reality is: the opposite is the case. “Working” on incoming emails usually keeps you from doing what is most important. And email is not – unless you are working at my favorite food delivery service.
On the days when I do not follow the best email advice I ever got (yes, it occurs from time to time), this is what happens:
I switch instantly into reactive mode. So many people want answers from me, and I will please them all.
Usually answering emails takes longer than I expect. Have you ever measured the time you need for answering emails? If not, do it now. Before you start, estimate how long you will need, and later on compare this with your actual. And be honest.
My working hard on bringing down the number of red items in my inbox is accompanied by “dings” and pop-ups: “You’ve got new mail”. Like a modern Sisyphus, for each email I delete, two more seem coming in. And, well, since I am distracted anyway already, why not answer a few more.
Does this sound familiar? I think I can see a smile on your face.
On days when I give in to email dictatorship, between one and two hours of the early morning pass by easily without ticking anything on my “important but not urgent” list. (You remember Stephen Covey‘s matrix, don’t you?)
Worse than that, after this exercise my mind got a little blur from juggling various topics and multi-tasking. A good deal of the day’s initial energy already faded, and it’s hard to re-focus.
Instead, this is what happens on the days when I am really focused:
Usually I decided about my top priorities already on the day before. I remind myself what I want to achieve because discipline is remembering what you want!
I let emails be emails, and I start the day with what matters most. Focus is the hidden driver of excellence, isn’t it?
My major challenge when working alone is often to get into the flow. It may take a while to be productive and feel some sort of accomplishment. Alas, how much easier would it be to answer emails now! This where I believe the key problem is: emails help you keep yourself busy and give you the satisfaction of doing something measurable. (“I have deleted 23 messages already!”) Yet, you may actually just be procrastinating. Working on emails can be a wonderful excuse for not doing the hard work. It’s easier to clean up the inbox than to… umm… write a blog for instance.
However, when you stick to a daily routine of putting first things first for just a few days, you will make significant progress on what really matters. You will perhaps work even more efficiently on your emails later during the day: with less time on their hands, most people sort out the unimportant stuff more quickly. And eventually some problems may have taken care of themselves. Or solved by one of the many others in the cc list.
Ineffective managers make all sorts of excuses:
- “in my organization people expect an immediate response”
- “there could be something urgent”
- “I need to check emails from overseas which come in over night”
There are usually effective workarounds for such situation. For instance, you can educate people that you are not responding to emails instantly. Because you are a leader who prioritizes properly and gets the important things done first. (Eventually you will become a role model for others and you may help the whole organization become more effective.) People can still call you when there is anything really urgent, and certainly your personal assistant can help you monitor your emails.
Just ask yourself what you need to focus on to achieve your goals. Emails are usually not on top of the priority list. People who put emails first look back in surprise on every Friday and wonder what they have actually been doing all week. Productive people keep their focus, and the focus is usually not on emails.
What do you choose to do?