Battling the Culture of Busy: Part 1 – Email Management and Organization
If the countermeasure to being busy is being intentional, then what can we do to be more intentional in how we choose to spend our time? In this 5 part series on Battling the Culture of Busy, I will provide organization tactics in the following areas: email, meetings, task management, prioritization, and self-care.
It could be argued that email is one of the greatest time vortexes of our first-world lives. For many of us, our email habits are completely passive and there is a complete lack of intentionality. While an amazing tool for communication, it has also become an incredible source of distraction. Learn five ways you can be more intentional about managing your email:
- Turn off email notifications
- Only reply to email at certain times of day
- Use tagging, labels, and folders to organize and prioritize your emails
- Apply the 5-minute rule
- Pick up the phone
The badge icon on our desktops or phones is a beacon for our already divided attention. It teases us, creating an inner dialogue along the lines of: “Who could it be? Is it important? Should I check now? I’ll just make sure it isn’t important…”. It wouldn’t be so bad, except we have this internal conversation constantly and obsessively check for new messages dozens of times a day.
It is the first thing many of us check when we wake up in the morning and the last thing we check before we go to bed. We can barely sit still in meetings without either sneaking a look under the table or lunging for our phones at a break if we had the self-control to put it on airplane mode. It also is an amazing procrastination tactic. It makes us feel like we are achieving something when we should probably be working on something else.
What’s worse is that most of us are not in roles where it is critical to be on top of our email at all times. A few hours between receiving and answering makes very little, if any, difference. But, similar to the FOMO (fear of missing out) we get through social media, we feel compelled to check it. But in doing so it creates an immense amount of mental clutter and fatigue. We check it, see an overwhelming list to deal with, and then carry in our minds the dozens of tasks or responsibilities. Each email we read is related to a different person, project, or context. As we switch between them, our brains have to switch gears to take in information across a plethora of disparate topics. Sounds kind of exhausting doesn’t it?
What can we do to make it so email doesn’t take up so much mental time and energy, and be more intentional while still recognizing that it is a big part of many of our lives?
1. Turn off email notifications
I don’t know about you, but email notifications make me anxious. The sound, the vibration, the little red badge…it’s like I can’t control myself and have to check immediately. True story: I have a reminder set for 4pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to clean my cat’s litterbox. I will not mark the email as read until it has been done. It motivates me to complete the task because I hate having that little badge sitting on my phone….mocking me.
I think the reason I hate the email notifications so much that they tend to be a pre-cursor to more work/responsibilities/tasks. I feel like if I am not instantly informed of something that is to be added to my mental to-do list I am somehow not on top of everything. It’s honestly kind of silly. Checking constantly just pulls me out of THE (DANGER?) ZONE and takes mental energy I could definitely use elsewhere.
So, instead of making myself crazy I turn everything off. And so can you!
By turning off the notifications you are:
- Accepting that you do not NEED to know every time a new email comes in
- Putting in the effort to break the cycle of constantly checking
- Being intentional about reducing unnecessary interruptions so that you can focus on specific tasks or people that are important to you.
How to turn off desktop notifications:
- Gmail users:
Click the gear icon near the upper right of the Gmail window
Click on the ‘Settings’ link
Check ‘Mail notifications off’ under the Desktop Notifications section
- Outlook 2010, 2013, and 2016 users:
From the File tab, click ‘Options’
Under Options, click ‘Mail’
Under ‘Message arrival’, uncheck the option for ‘Display a Desktop Alert’
- For earlier versions of Outlook:
From the Tools menu, click ‘Options’
On the Preferences tab, click ‘E-mail Options’, and then click ‘Advanced E-mail Options’
Under ‘When new items arrive in my Inbox’, uncheck the ‘Display a New Mail Desktop Alert’ check box
How to turn off phone notifications:
- iPhone Mail.app users:
Turn off all notifications
- iPhone Gmail users:
Turn off all notifications
- Android Gmail users:
Open your Gmail application
Tap the top left menu button
Scroll to the bottom and tap ‘Settings’
Tap an account and then uncheck ‘Notifications’
2. Only check your email at certain times of day
Now that you are not being notified every three minutes about a new email, consider setting aside specific times each day that you check your email. This can vary depending on the volume and urgency you expect, but it is a very intentional approach to limiting how much attention you give to your email.
Have you ever checked your email right before bed, when you really can’t do anything about it? Perhaps you kept yourself up for hours thinking about what you are going to do or how you are going to reply to said email. Not that I have ever done this (ok, maybe once…or twice….or at least once a week), but I hear it is a thing people do.
Instead of doing that to yourself, you could instead figure out:
- How much time a day do you spend answering email on average?
- Are there certain times of day that you tend to get more email than others?
- What is a reasonable amount of time for you to get back to people within?
Example email checking/answering schedule:
- 8:30am- First thing when you get into the office (1 hour)
- 11:30am – Right before lunch (30 minutes)
- 4:00pm – Right before the end of the business day (1 hour)
You can set up alarms on your phone to let you know when it is time to check your email or use something like Boomerang and schedule specific times for your email to come in.
This approach can help you still stay on top of your email as it comes in, but prevents it from being a constant distraction.
3. Use tagging, labels, and folders to organize and prioritize your emails
When you do check your email it can be overwhelming to see that you have a list of 300 emails sitting in your inbox. Just thinking about that makes me anxious. One of the ways you can combat this is to tag and label your emails.
Depending on your email client, there are a number of ways you can do this. I adore this Gmail system.
The general idea is to tag your emails based on priority. In my inbox, as an email comes in or is answered it gets tagged as one of:
- Awaiting reply
- FYI (which for me are things that I might want to look at later, but don’t require my attention).
I also have labeled folders that each email gets archived to when they no longer need to sit in my inbox.
The benefit of tagging, labeling, and folders is that it makes you intentional about:
- Prioritizing which emails require your attention, and which don’t.
- Making specific emails easier to find and search for later.
What tags make sense for your workflow? Brainstorm your 3-6 tags and start applying them to new emails.
4. Apply the 5-minute rule
Now that you have your inbox organized it is easier to identify what needs to be done. Often it is the smallest tasks that end up sitting in our inboxes the longest. They taunt you, contributing to your mental and visual clutter while you procrastinate. They hang over you while you are driving/doing the dishes/making dinner/petting your cat (that one might just be me) etc.
One of the reasons this made my list is this is something that my husband, who has a heavy stream of emails coming in each day, laments about on occasion. We share an office and every once in a while he turns to me, clearly a little exasperated at himself, and asks: “Why did I wait so long to deal with that?”. I turn back to him and say:
When you are combing through your email evaluate each one and make a judgment call. If it will take under 5-minutes to deal with, work on it immediately. Put a sticky note on your monitor as a reminder to not procrastinate!
Taking care of small tasks as soon as you get them reduces the clutter in your inbox, your mind, and is an intentional action in keeping your inbox organized.
5. Pick up the phone
This is a post about email management, so why would we talk about the phone?
To be honest, I kind of hate talking on the phone. I like to be able to take the time to compose what I am going to say and I don’t like being put on the spot. I also like a record of things that are being discussed/agreed upon.
Also, who likes human interaction anyway?
That said, sometimes, instead of sending 15 emails back and forth over the course of several hours, you should really just pick up the damn phone and hash it out in 5 minutes worth of conversation. If you really need to you can follow your phone call up with an email summarizing what was said.
- Is this a conversation?
- Has it exceeded 3 email replies?
- Will I have to type a small novel to explain something?
If your answer to any of these questions is yes, you can make an intentional decision to move it out of your inbox and pick up the phone.
All of these email organization tactics are pretty simple and, dare I say, common sense. But, when used together they provide an intentional approach to email management, which for many of us is a large part of our culture of busy. These tactics make you think more about how often you allow email to distract you, as well as give you ways to reduce the mental overhead that email can hang over us.