The good, bad and ugly of email

Donna McGeorge
March 25th, 2019
Media | Email

Facility Management

Whether you are conscious of it or not, those emails you have read, replied to or filed create distractions and make you unproductive for the whole day. You have relinquished control of your work efficiency – but the good news is you can win it back. DONNA McGEORGE explains how.

Transform bad habits into good ones

How do you currently spend the first two hours of your day? Unfortunately, most of us come to work, grab a coffee, chat with a few colleagues, sit at our desk, open our emails and respond to them from the top down. Before you know it, it’s 1pm and you’re still reacting to requests. Newsflash! You are letting email dictate your day.

According to DMR, a social media statistics and trend resource, the average user gets around 112 emails per day. (I’ve heard people say it varies from 40 to 200 per day, depending on the role.)

When asked, ‘What percentage of those are important and require a considered response from you?’ The answer is almost unanimously 10 percent. A study by the University of Glasgow found that we use email correctly to leverage time zones or answer a well-defined question only 20 percent of the time. The rest is a waste, and much of it could have been better handled by a phone call or face-to-face discussion.

Many issues arise because we operate on autopilot and tend to complete tasks reactively rather than proactively tackle the day ahead.

Leave it ’til lunch

For the majority of us, we reach peak alertness at 10 am and our best coordination is around 2.30 pm. This is best explained by the work of Michael Smolensky and Lynne Lambert, published in their book The Body Clock Guide to Better Health, which describes a person’s typical circadian rhythm.

Tasks that require attention and focus are best done in the morning and repetitive tasks are best completed in the afternoon when your body is naturally looking for a rest while it digests your lunch.

At this time, we often experience a drop in attention, memory, logical reasoning and mood. This is not a good time to have a meeting where critical decision-making or problem-solving is required, but it is a good time to respond to emails.

It does seem ridiculously late, but remember that only about 10 percent of your email requires a considered response, so now you can manage and process the remaining 90 percent that doesn’t require your brain to be at capacity. Given that the vast majority of your emails are probably a waste of your time, there’s not much at stake here.

The very idea of not checking your emails until after lunch is scary! ‘What if there is something important there that I need to respond to?’ Your email inbox is no different from the old-fashioned in-tray on your desk. It’s the way that work comes to you. We just need to be more mindful of when we process, respond to and complete it.

Scan it and move on

To combat the fear of missing out (FOMO), scan your email first thing in the morning and make some conscious decisions following these four steps:

  1. Scan your inbox and identify the 10 percent of emails that require a considered response. Try colour coding your senders so you can quickly identify those from your boss.

  2. Determine if those responses are needed immediately or if they can be scheduled.

  3. If it’s not urgent, and it requires a considered response, then schedule it for the first two hours tomorrow, or another morning later in the week.

  4. Leave the rest until later on in the day, including deleting content that’s been handled.

These steps will help shift your usual patterns and cycle of habits. If you are someone who responds immediately to all emails, then people will come to expect that. Then, if you don’t reply to something within 30 minutes, you’re likely to get another email or a phone call with the expectation of an immediate response. When you delay your email responses, you set expectations and form a new habit, enabling you to protect your most valuable time in the morning for constructive work.

Three quick tips to reduce your emails now

  1. Send less – Try other communication methods such as phone calls, personal visits or instant messaging applications.

  2. Improve the quality – Use the subject line more effectively. Instead of ‘When can we meet?’, you could say ‘Can we meet on Thursday at two?’

  3. Action items – Create a ‘Done’ folder in your inbox. Once an email has been read or actioned, drag it across. If you need it later, it will be easy to find.

Donna McGeorge is a speaker, author and mentor, who helps people make their work, work. Using a creative, practical approach, she improves workplace effectiveness while challenging thinking on leadership, productivity and virtual work. The First 2 Hours: Make Better Use of Your Most Valuable Time is published by John Wiley. 

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