Why you should read this chapter
There’s thousands of applications out there for email productivity. You’ll find long sales letter pages preaching the next “magic bullet” or “ultimate email productivity success system.” Yet, most productivity applications do a better job in confusing chaos than solving chaos.
It’s clear that email is taking over a significant portion of our lives, but what is not clear is how to actually prevent emails from taking over our lives.
Effective email use is simple.
I’m not going to throw 10 steps, 19 processes and 51 apps at you that promise to make your email time more productive.
Why? Because that ends up confusing things.
In the chapter below, we’ll outline the simple philosophy and steps to getting the most out of email in the least amount of time.
We’ve shifted from a society of artists and specialists to one that stares at digital pixels all day.
In April 2008, the New York Times published an article which uncovered that nearly a third of one’s work day is spent on irrelevant items and distractions such as email. What’s more, the Radicati Group found that the average person is on track to spend nearly half of their day staring at email.
Our innovation and information has quadrupled over the past century. But why hasn’t our value grown proportionally? If our innovation has sky-rocketed, why hasn’t our effectiveness sky-rocketed? What happened to the concept of peace-of-mind?
Looking at the late nineties and early twenty-first century, our innovation within the information realm outshines the industrial age. It’s absolutely staggering. The wealth of available information on demand, as well as our ability to communicate anytime, anywhere, is absolutely insane. Yet, amidst this firestorm of information innovation, we’ve lost touch with what truly adds value to the world, and what truly makes us different than computers. Our creator didn’t put us on earth to process inputs and spit out outputs. We are here to think, to shape, to give and to create.
The way we use email endangers our purpose. It threatens our potential to innovate and create art. Email constantly attacks your focus. For this reason, you must learn how to make email work for you. This chapter will show you how.
Are you an email farmer or an email hunter?
Have you ever driven home from work, and wondered what you actually did that day? You question if you even did anything productive. You fear you were just busy with items that were good for one thing: keeping you busy.
Don’t beat yourself up. It’s OK. We all go through the thought-process above every once in a while. However, the key centers on knowing when and how to correct this. A day filled with shooting the breeze with employees, answering questions, staring at emails, checking social networks and chatting with colleagues won’t make you rich. It’ll make you busy. There’s too much information flying at us, and in order to fulfill your purpose, you must learn to respectfully say no, and decline distraction.
Many of the innovations within our information revolution are valuable–they’re meaningful, and can actually add significance to the world. Yet, we rarely work as if email is simply a maintenance tool for creating. We use it as a substitute for creating.
Instead of using email like a farmer (maintain crops); we try and use email like a hunter (try and get business). Your goal should be to use email like a farmer, not a hunter.
Use life as the platform to hunt and bring in business, not email.
In order to master the art of sifting through email, and not getting distracted by irrelevant items, we’ll first outline the nature of email itself. We’ll then outline an appropriate philosophy towards email and then show you the process of batching email.
The Nature of Email
Email is a radically different form of communication than any other form. It combines two elements that make it less personal than other forms of communication: 1. lack of time, and 2. lack of personality. Other forms of communication like meeting up with people, mailing somebody a letter or picking up the phone to call someone possesses at least one of those two elements. Email is instant. And with less time spent writing an email, also comes less meaning. Yet, this is fine–if you understand the nature of email, that is.
A person gets more meaning, and a bigger smile from a phone call than an email. Same goes for meeting in person. Why? Because you’ve invested actual time in delivering the message. Time is not only money; time is value. As you invest time with someone, you’re also investing value in that relationship.
Email is a different beast. Here are 3 characteristics of email. Understanding these characteristics will help you to put your interpretation of email into perspective:
1. Emails usually aren’t emergencies
Emails may be emergencies in the mind of the sender; but if you take a step back, an email message isn’t going to contain life or death information. And if it does, you should definitely have a talk with the person sending such an email–because they’re nuts.
2. Bite-sized clarifications or confirmations
Email isn’t an appropriate medium for negotiating, agreeing on items or correcting term sheets. You’ll be wasting a lot of time if you try and get negotiations done over email. Not only does it take longer to read through the others response, you’ll also have to wait for him or her to get back to you. Unless they’re addicted to email, the lag time can get long, and annoying. After a certain point within an email thread, it’s wise to just pick up the phone and give the person a call. (And by pick up the phone, I mean work or home phone in my case–because I’ve forgone my cell phone.)
3. Emails aren’t insightful
Emails are worse than reading a children’s book because at least children’s books contain words, and are proof-read. If you’re spending half your day staring at digital jargon, guess what you’ll end up spewing out to others throughout the day? Digital jargon.
We’ll dive into how exactly you should counter this mass of emails, and filter out the good from the bad, but first, you must have a solid philosophy and mindset towards email.
Your Philosophy Towards Email
Your philosophy and attitude towards email determines how productive you are using email.
There’s hundreds of tips out there that confuse things. They call these tips, “Hacks” or “Applications” or “Plugins.” You’ll find tools that suggest setting up advanced filters, having email sync with certain applications, through setting emails up through an army of assistants, or all of them combined.
Here’s the thing: no piece of software can improve your email productivity. Only your attitude can.
Mastering email isn’t complex, and doesn’t warrant thousands of applications and books written about it. Some email guides are excellent; yet, some are filled with noise and applications that add zero value to your life. They actually end up hurting your productivity. The key with leveraging email for productivity is first founded on your philosophy and attitude towards email itself. If you hate email, you’ll become more productive in using email.
There are many famous authors, bloggers and celebrities that proudly declare that they answer every one of their emails. The only problem with this centers on their response. It’s usually watered down. And more, they tend to wear themselves out. You’ll find that these people are constantly tied to their Blackberries. They check email every five minutes. Here’s the irony: the people that check their email throughout the day end up being less productive; yet they reason that they do so in the first place because it makes them more productive.
If they looked at the data, they’d see that the antithesis was true. Research cites that multitasking actually slows down your productivity.
Then why do they check email throughout the day?
Typically, when you have something that is proven to harm your productivity, yet people still swear by it, there’s one thing involved: entertainment. And guess what people are addicted to? Entertainment. Believe it or not, some people find checking email entertaining. I did at one point in my life. Research shows that you get a dopamine kick when your mind is entertained–and you can become entertained through email. People love getting email notifications because they love getting noticed. A private message that is aimed directly at them excites them; and this excitement leads them to constantly check email.
For this reason, your philosophy towards email shouldn’t be based on pleasure. Email should equal pain. It should be seen as spring cleaning. You let the dirt build, and then crank it out and clean it up within a day.
The Three Types of Emailers
There’s really three ways that people interact with email.
Person One: Billy Blackberry
Checking email hundreds of times per day. Leaving the unimportant ones unread; and then after about a month or so, clearing every email out.
Person Two: Casual Cassandra
Checking email casually about a dozen times per day, and leaving some items unread so that you can do it later (many of us are in this stage)
Person Three: Betty Batcher
This centers on checking email only 2-4 times per day. It involves clearing out hundreds of messages within 5-10 minutes. After which, your inbox will read “0.”
For the purpose of becoming more effective, it’s best to adopt strategy three. We all need to become a Betty Batcher. I will now show you how.
3 Steps to Mastering Email Productivity for Your Entire Life
As stated above, the concept of developing productive email habits is simple. So, I’ll jump straight to it now:
1. Set a schedule
When I first set out to make email as productive as possible, I made the mistake of simply telling myself to check email less than five times per day. I didn’t define a schedule. I ended up checking email less frequently than I normally did, but I didn’t develop the productivity that I could have developed. Thus, in order to actually make this process work, you’ll need to clearly define two times per day when you’ll check email.
Here’s my schedule:
- Monday through Friday: 10am and 3pm
- Weekends: Check personal email once per day, and don’t check work email at all
2. If you’ve left an item unread, you fail
Before outlining the principles of effective email use below, please understand that the key with avoiding procrastination centers on processing every single email, and taking a specific action with it. Choosing to not do anything will hurt your productivity. There are four actions that you must take when processing email:
- Add to your to-do list
- Do it now
The action you must avoid is leaving item marked unread. If you’ve left an item unread, you fail. You’ve procrastinated.
3. The three questions
Below is the process that will allow you to conquer email, and make email a productive, swift time for getting things done.
That’s it. It’s simple, yet takes some practice to implement effectively.
Advanced Email Tools
You may find these tips obvious or common sense. They are. The philosophy above reassures the simplicity you thought email was all about. As I said above, you should avoid guides like, “47 Gmail Hacks from Google Labs.” However, if you have a problem that’s a bit more complicated, or an email system that’s already a mess, I suggest reading some guides that share the philosophy outlined above, yet they also provide you with advanced tips in the case that your email system is out of control. You may want to check out Jared Goralnick’s guide to Not Checking Email. You’ll find that many of the philosophies outlined above are very similar in nature. In fact, whether you’re reading The Four Hour Work Week, Inbox Zero or Getting Things Done, you’ll find they all outline a similar philosophy. Why? Because it works.
Best of luck in your journey in conquering email. Though the idea is simple, it’s easier said than done. As always, please tell me your thoughts and share your experiences through the comments below.
Additional advanced resources and Links:
- Nutshell Mail
- AwayFind’s Guide for Not Checking Email
- Merlin Mann Inbox Zero Presentation
- Getting Things Done
- Zen Habits Power of Less
- Filtering Emails from Technotheory
Email Filter Guides by Service (for advanced use of email–when you want to filter messages):
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