Email Should Increase Your Productivity, Not Bog You Down

Before most people had ever heard about email, my tech-savvy boss called me into his office to show me a new program he had on his computer. It was a program called “Elm,” which allowed him to read and send electronic messages between different computers.  He was excited about the prospects.  I remember thinking that I could never see a practical use for it.  I was perfectly happy making and taking phone calls as well as writing letters.

It wasn’t long before I had my own personal email account, and my email box was full of messages.

Now it is rare if I get a letter and my office phone rarely rings.  

Michigan State University Professor Russell Johnson examined how email has become a distraction to most workers.  He found that employees spend more than 90 minutes every day (or 7 1/2 hours per week) dealing with these distractions. As he wrote in the Journal of Applied Psychology, “Like most tools, email is useful, but it can become disruptive and even damaging if used excessively or inappropriately. When managers are the ones trying to recover from email interruptions, they fail to meet their goals. They neglect their responsibilities. Their subordinates don’t have the leadership behavior they need to thrive.”

I hear the frequent complaint that there are too many emails coming in every day and that filing them into different folders and responding to urgent ones takes too much time.

Many productivity experts advise that it is important to empty your email box every day.  While that task may sound overwhelming, it is easier than you think and remains an essential element of your productivity journey.

Let’s look at ways of managing your email.

Set aside perhaps an hour at the beginning of your day and another at the end of the day to review your email box.  You cannot and should not respond or react to every email you read.  Instead, you want to look for genuinely urgent items.  These might be related to decisions you have to make, the information you have been seeking, or possibly something from your boss.  

Resist the temptation to act on every email.  All that will do is distract you from the tasks you had promised to complete that day.  Take care of landmines and file the rest. Professor Johnson notes, “So, not only are managers not managing – but they’re also focusing on smaller tasks for the sake of feeling productive.”

Once you have decided to go through your inbox, you have to decide what to do with those that can’t be deleted. I do not advocate an intricate system of email folders.  Whatever email program you use, it has a robust search function.  If you find email messages that you can quickly respond to in a couple of minutes, do it right away.  If it relates to information you need to think about or act on, put it in a “Pending” folder and add the task to your ‘to-do list.  If someone has provided you with information regarding a project you are working on, make a quick note and put it in the project folder you are maintaining outside of email.  Keep the original email and put it into an “Archive” folder.  If an email contains something related to a client, an idea you might want to remember, or anything that you feel might be helpful in the future, move it to the ‘Archive” folder.  I recommend that you have three folders: Inbox, Pending, and Archive.  That is all you need.  I used to have a folder for every person that I dealt with or worked with.  That was a mess.  Use your search tool to find any email you need.  Filing into separate folders takes too much time and has very little payback.

As someone once told me, if you happen to trash an email that you need later, there is a good chance that someone else has a copy that they can send you.

The benefit of reviewing all of your emails every day is so that nothing gets lost in the backlog on hundreds (or thousands) of emails in your inbox.  Your inbox should not be a collection of read/unread emails.

When you implement this strategy, you will likely run into a colleague who will complain that you don’t respond to his or her email quickly enough.  Because so many people read emails almost as fast as they arrive, we have created a culture of immediate responses.  That doesn’t have to be your pattern.  The exception, of course, is if your boss requires it.  Once people around you realize that you will review and respond to emails regularly, they won’t expect an instant response.  If a matter is urgent, encourage them to call you or visit you in your office.  When you respond instantly, you get distracted from your projects. You may make others happy, but you will make yourself miserable and less productive.

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