Since leaving my full-time job over a year ago, my use of email has dropped significantly. As a professional coach, I think it is the biggest pain most of my clients are grappling with along with Slack or Team messaging. I recently read, A World without Email by Cal Newport and it’s a sobering eye-opening read. As Newport wrote, “The modern knowledge worker is almost never more than a few minutes away from sending or receiving some sort of electronic communication. To say we check email too often is an understatement; the reality is that we’re using these tools constantly.” I find this was especially true in support roles like finance, human resources and IT. To be responsive, we feel like we always have to be “on” and “on” is checking and responding to emails.
The amount of time spent on emails is staggering considering we didn’t even have this technology forty years ago. As Abigail Hess wrote for Make It, “During the workday, respondents reported spending an average of 209 minutes checking their work email and 143 minutes checking their personal email, for a total of 352 minutes (about five hours and 52 minutes) each day.” This was written in 2019, before the pandemic, when theoretically we might run into someone at the water cooler and be able to accomplish communication in a more satisfying, higher quality manner. Way too much of our attention is captured by our inboxes.
My 6 tips for conquering email:
Notifications. Turn off any and all notifications. When we hear a ping or see a visual notification that we have an email, our brain wants to go check. After all, you may have hit the lottery or received some other windfall. The likelihood of this is like .0001% but our brains want that hit of dopamine to see if maybe, just maybe there is an extra million or so dollars on the way. I think of it as running out to your physical mailbox every 2 minutes. I had to look on YouTube to figure out how to turn off notifications but it makes for an easier time to do deep high quality work. Turn off notifications.
Phone or video chat. Many of us are in a situation where we are not collocated with coworkers any more. Email is devoid of all voice inflection and body language. It is a poor and inefficient substitute for a conversation. If in-person communication isn’t possible, use the phone or video chat. As Newport wrote, “Prioritization of abstract written communication over in-person communication disregarded the immensely complex and finely tuned social circuits that our species evolved to optimize our ability to work cooperatively. By embracing email, we inadvertently crippled the systems that make us so good at working together.” We are wired to talk and connect with others both visually and vocally. Prioritize voice and visual connection.
Keep emails short. I read recently that we should keep them to five sentences or less. I cannot tell you how many times my eyes would roll when I saw a multi-paragraph email and I would put off reading it for hours and sometimes days. If it’s reference information, make it an attachment. As Newport espoused, “Always keeping emails short is a simple rule, but the effects can be profound. Once you no longer think of email as a general-purpose tool for talking about anything at any time, its stranglehold on your attention will diminish.” Keep emails brief and to the point.
Subject lines. Utilize subject lines so that at a glance, the receiver knows what it’s about and what, if any action, they need to take. As Peter Diamandis wrote, “The subject needs to be unique and compelling—just like a headline on a news article, the subject should capture my attention, pique my interest, and make me want to open your email. The subject line should be meaningful: I should know what you want, based on the subject.” It might be: Launch date for Widget Project – please confirm by this afternoon. I remember sending emails to a coworker for proofing and putting the topic for the email and “please proof” at the end of the subject line. Be discerning with your subject line.
Block time and set expectations. There are two ways to eliminate five plus hours on emailing. One is to set times that you read and respond to emails like at 8 AM, 11 AM and 4 PM or setting up blocks for deep work like 10 to 11:30 and 2 to 3:30. Either way, I’d suggest when you start this, please let those you work closely with know that you plan on spending chunks of the day not responding to email. Have them pick up the phone if it’s urgent. For time blocks to work, set expectations with those around you.
Don’t be a part of the problem. Send less emails. It’s wired into us that we must be cordial and respond quickly. This goes back to being a part of a group of hunter gatherers. Those that got along with the group were not shunned from the group. We want to belong so we answer quickly. We are wired to be responsive so that we can be connected to the group. But email is not a conversation. Try to connect in person, virtually or by phone. Limit the emails you send out.
Newport refers to the state of our brains as the hyperactive hive mind. We end up in a constant state of task and context switching which is stressful and not very gratifying. Time to think and do deep quality work is what most of us are missing. Email is one of the causes of our distracted minds. How do you conquer emails?