I remember back in my earlier days of dating I was “that guy”, and by that guy I mean the guy that was insecure, like many teenage boys. I had to regularly get affirmation throughout the relationship that things were going okay. I’ve heard there is nothing a female likes more than a boy that keeps asking, “Do you still like me?" and "Is everything okay?”
Funny thing is that horrible relationship habit follows many of us into our daily work. Hopefully we aren’t asking our co-workers if they still like us, but instead that's how many of us act around our email. It is one thing for a tween to act that way about a boy or a girl, completely another thing for a grown adult. Metaphor aside our obsessive nature with email is a productivity killer at best and unhealthy at worst. Many of us sit at our computer or with our phone in hand and keep hitting refresh. I have seen more than a few people take their phone out of their pocket to check email, put the phone back in their pocket, and in less than 5 minutes they will take the phone back out just in case they missed an email coming in. We act as if we are validated in our role for our company, because we respond quickly to that next “urgent” email.
The crazy thing about the vast majority of email…it isn’t urgent. I have never received an email from someone that was so critical that it couldn’t wait an hour. For immediate communication people normally call or text. You don’t email 9-1-1 when a burglar comes into your house for good reason. There are also no Nobel Peace Prize, Sales person of the year awards, or Grammy’s that pay tribute to the speed in which you respond to email.
We have already discussed the value of delaying email delivery and helping figure out when you are finished with email. Today I want to talk about a different type of delay… purposefully delaying checking your email.
We are going to talk about “Scheduled Email Checking”.
Just like our other email behavior changes, we are going work on this taking one baby step at a time. There is no reason for your heart beat to quicken or your blood pressure to rise.
I want to first answer the question of why we should work on this as a strategy. So we don’t confuse the issue, I don’t want to include the other email strategies for the sake of this conversation. I just want to look at this single strategy in isolation, which has significant value, because it helps set expectations around your communication style.
Let’s hypothetically say you have a project due in 2 weeks. You have been put in charge of building 1,000 paper airplanes. The most important part of this project will be to actually create the airplanes, but you will want to invite others to help. To solicit people to your cause, you send out a mass email to 50 friends. This does 2 things for you, it helps lessen your actual workload, but it is also sets up a firestorm of potential email back-and-forth. You could easily spend 6-8 hours a week immediately responding to each email that comes into your inbox. Everything from “How have you been?” to “When/Where are we meeting?” the quality of email will land on a spectrum of concise to conflated. Instead of responding to each email as it trickles in, what would happen if you let your emails come in and build up a sufficient workload? You may only spend 1-2 hours a week at that point, which would allow you to complete your 1,000 paper airplanes in record time. This method is called batching. This is very similar to how most of us approach laundry. We wait until we have a sufficient sized load, then we do our laundry. Think about it, how much time would we spend doing laundry if we washed/dried every article of clothing each day? It would take substantially more time.
When I searched the Internet a few days ago for ways to better approach email, there were a cornucopia of different strategies to approach this subject. I am going to meld them together and give them a tiered level of difficulty. This will help you spend less time in your inbox. You may start at any level, but know that it won’t be easy if you haven’t done this before, and depending on the severity of your obsessive nature around email this approach allows you to slowly dip your toes into this particular pool of productivity.
Level 1 - More Work, Less Notification
This is the lowest level of change. This is a 2-step process.
Step one, change the interval in which your phone checks for email. The longest interval you can set for an Apple device is an hour. On Android you can move it to checking once a day. Since we are talking bout dipping our toes into the pool of productivity, for either mobile OS, let’s start with an hour. You can also change the frequency of your email client on your computer, but your mobile device is the best place to start with this practice. Below are a few screen shots of how to get to these settings on an iPhone.
Your phone will now check your email accounts once an hour. This is a very simple change and probably an unnoticeable change for 80% of you.
Level 1.5 - More Work, Less Notification
The second step is a little harder. I want you to navigate to your phone’s notification center, select Mail, and simply remove the notifications for email. This very simple act will help relieve you from seeing/feeling/hearing any buzz or ding in case an email does comes in. I know you are still going to check your email regularly, these 2 steps help create safety nets for you that help you maintain your focus.
Level 2 - Scheduled Checking
Now let’s get to the meat of the subject. There used to be a great piece of software that would analyze your email account and tell you when you receive the bulk of your email. This gave you data so you knew the best time to check your account. Sadly it is gone, but we can still use the same idea. If we take an average 9-5 work schedule we can begin to make a few assumptions about when the bulk of your email comes in. If you do not work a 9-5 job, I feel confident you can apply this same approach shifting the hours. In the morning most people check their email first thing so by 10am they’ve probably sent off their morning emails. Checking your email after 10am, allows you to spend from 9am-10am planning your schedule, what tasks need to be accomplished, and creating a game plan. While everyone else is sending out his or her flurry of emails you are preparing for your day. Another barrage of emails typically comes in just after lunch. So you will want to check your email closer to 1-2pm. This gives you time to enjoy your lunch either quietly or with a friend, with no distractions. The last time slot you want to check for email is when the day is almost over. Around 4pm check your email again. You can send out your responses immediately or schedule them to go out the next day. Given those time frames this is what your email schedule would look like:
10am –Respond to email then close your email client
1pm - Respond to email then close your email client
4pm - Respond to email then close your email client
It is important to close your email client, to help reduce the overall distraction. We have now moved you from checking your email several dozen times a day down to three. Think for a moment of how much more productive you can be, if your head isn’t in email all day long? How much time during your day do you get back? 1hr? 2hrs?
Level 3 - Auto Responder
We have narrowed your email down to 3 times a day, which is phenomenal progress. If you stopped there you would be more effective that 80% of your co-workers. Go You!
If you want to take the next step, ask yourself “What would happen if you checked your email once a day or once every 10 days?" It seems completely unrealistic for many, but let’s put this into perspective. Have you gone on vacation? Vacations typically span more than 3 days, and it might span several weeks.
What do you do while you’re on vacation? You set up an out-of office message. Why can’t you set up an out of office message for all the time? But let’s give this practice a different name, since you are in the office, we will call it an auto-responder. Tim Ferriss, who is a teacher of many things, has a great article that talks about creating strategies for auto-responders, but put very concisely. Someone sends you an email, and the auto-responder mentions you are trying to be more effective with your time, and you will respond to your email in 2-4 days or something of the like. Rather than re-hashing all of his advice, if you are ready to take this step, read his article.
This gives you the ultimate freedom from email. People aren’t upset about your out of office, because you are on vacation, are they? If you discuss your new communication strategy with your boss there is a great likelihood she/he will be very supportive of you being more productive.
Each of these levels is about setting expectations. Either setting your own expectations, or by helping set other’s expectations of your communication frequency regarding email. For most business communication, answering emails within 24hrs is very acceptable. I know many people that go several days in between answering emails, and don’t have an auto-responder to help set exceptions. When you go the extra step and help set their expectations for you, people are generally appreciative of your clarity of communication and respect your intent to be more productive.
I would love to hear your feedback on this topic. I know it can be a struggle to make change, but if you pull this one off, I would love to hear how it has impacted your day to day life.