I spent some time recently with a friend of mine, let’s called her Jenny. We had a great chat and it was good to catch up. After explaining to me that she was waiting for an important letter, I noticed that on a fairly frequent basis she got up and walked to the hall. There she checked her doormat in case the postman had been. Only to return. One of these times, she did find that a letter had arrived. After opening it, she quickly read it, put it back into the envelope and then dropped it back on the doormat. How odd I thought. It is then I noticed that there were several
on the doormat. Questioning her about it she explained that these are just the general-run-of-the-mill type letters including bills and that she would action them later. What I could not figure out was why she had put it back onto the doormat.
Jenny, as you may by now have gathered is fictional, and yet she showed a strange approach to dealing with her post. “That is a ridiculous story” I hear you say. However in actual fact, it is not too dissimilar to how many of us treat our email inbox. Go on admit it: you check and validate
Checking – you regularly (or constantly) check your email inbox, just in case a customer, colleague, supplier or your boss emails you. Sometimes you glance at it, find nothing new and then return to whatever you were doing. The important thing is though to keep your inbox open at all times. Even better when you have a desk monitor linked to your laptop because then you can keep it open but on a separate screen. Just staring at you all day long just so that you can pounce on that email the moment it comes in.
Validating – a new email comes in and you immediately open it. You check the contents and perhaps decide that the email needs to be responded to but later would be better. In any case you want to focus on what you were doing and don’t want to be distracted right now (even though it was self imposed) . You dutifully close the email and it sits in your inbox waiting for you to action it. Amongst the other 1734 emails.
So as you can see, you and I are not so different from Jenny after all then. Instead we need to treat our inbox like we do our doormat or post box, but what does that mean…practically. Here are some simple rules:
- RULE 1 – Don’t check your emails first thing
You get into the office, switch your laptop on and the first thing you do is go through your inbox. Not necessarily a bad thing but before you know it, you are already 1 or 2 hours in your day. The first moments of the day are far better spend by creating a list of objectives and must-do’s for that day. This will at the very least put a framework and structure to your day. We will go through this in a later posting. Early morning is also the time that for many of us we are the most creative and productive. Has your project hit a roadblock – better to tackle it first thing as you will have a much more creative and clear view of how to overcome it. Going through your inbox first thing will only distract you and your thoughts.
- RULE 2 – Check emails three times a day
“Three times a day, really?!” I hear you cry. “but what if that important email lands in my inbox”. Think back to the previous day. How many of these emails were really important and so urgent that they required an immediate response. Very few I would suspect. Emails can also be self-creating and before you know it, you end up having email tennis. So this is what we are going to do. We are going to check emails just three times per day, and once we have managed that we are going to consider twice. When we are going to check it really depends on your general working day. So let’s say I start at 08:00 so maybe spending some time checking emails at 09:00, 13:00 and then 16:00 would be enough. Furthermore, we are going to allocate a set time, say 20 minutes. If you don’t then you may end up entering your inbox and not finding your way out for some time. With a set time allocated, it will mean that you will (have to) go through your emails quicker.
Two things will happen. Firstly you will spend far less of your precious time on email and so find time to attack your must-do list. Secondly you will become more productive. By the time you review your inbox, you may well find that the scatter gun email that someone sent, has already been answered by one of your colleagues.
I have entrepreneurial friends who have their Out-of-Office message set to inform the sender that the email has been received but how they will read it at x and y of each day. Should the email require an urgent response then please contact them by phone. Not only does this set the expectation but for urgent matter the sender is likely to phone anyway next time which will then lead to fewer emails in your inbox in the first place.
- RULE 3 – Treat your inbox as an inbox
Finally we are going to treat the inbox as an inbox. The dictionary tells me that the work “inbox” means “a place on a computer where emails that are sent to you are kept [until actioned]”, although I would suggest adding the words at the end. Opening an email, reading it and then closing it for actioning later is like dropping that letter back onto the doormat. You will only be opening it again and reading it again, which means you are now double handling and wasting time. So instead we are going to delete it, delegate it or action it. The first two are straight forward. The next thing is to action it. David Allen in Getting Things Done discusses that if an action takes less than two minutes, then it should be done there and then. Just get it done and get it out of your inbox. Leaving it there is only going to distract you the next time you look at your inbox, and remember next time you will only have 20 minutes.
These three rules take time and discipline to impliment but it’s worth it.