Who decides when things arrive in your email inbox?
Most of us think this is a given. Things arrive shortly after the sender clicks ‘send’, right? That implies that the email senders in your life are in control. Your job is simply to be ready to respond. They have your leash, and can yank it whenever it suits them. You’re the goalkeeper, destined forever only to play defence.
But what if they weren’t in control? What if you could be in the driver’s seat? I’m sure many of the folk who send you emails are lovely people, but if you’re letting them determine when their messages get your attention, you’re giving up control of a big part of your life, namely the several hours every day that researchers tell us the average person deals with email.
The thing is, there is a simple change you can make to the way you work with email that gives you back control. You can turn off automatic updating, so that new emails only get downloaded from the email server when you request them. Find the feature, it’s available in most of the popular email client applications and on most mobile devices. For example, it’s called ‘Work Offline’ in the latest version of Outlook. If you can’t find it in your email client, talk to your IT people or Google it.
Now you can decide when you’ll allow more email into your inbox. You can make the call about when you’re ready for more. You’re not the goal keeper any more, you’re in control. So how would you decide when you are really ready for more? A good goal to set would be: only allow additional email in when you have made decisions about the emails already in your inbox, when you’re clear what you’re going to do about or with each one. That doesn’t mean you’ve completed the work implied by each email, but you’ve decided what the next action is, and have created an appropriate reminder for that action. Or you’ve decided the email is trash and deleted it, or that it’s reference material and you’ve filed it appropriately.
To be clear, this approach isn’t appropriate for everyone. If in my job I need to be available minute-to-minute to email then I should be. If I work on a help desk, for example, then it would probably be a bad thing not to be aware of emails as they arrive. “Sorry boss, I didn’t get the email about the complete collapse of the server infrastructure because I’ve decided that email distracts me from my work”. If you have a job like that, being aware of emails as they arrive is your work.
But the vast majority of us don’t need to be that responsive. How responsive do you need to be? It’s a great idea to have a conversation with your team about this. At Next Action Associates we’ve agreed that our goal is to respond to emails from clients within 24 hours of sending, and to internal emails from each other within 48 hours, unless the email is marked ‘TIMELY’ in the subject line, in which case we try to respond before the end of the current business day.
If you don’t have this conversation with your team, then in my experience there’s a tacit agreement that emails will be responded to “as soon as possible”, but the definition of ‘as soon as possible’ varies from person to person. Ever get a phone call from someone saying “did you get my email?”. The phone call was from someone who has a different understanding about what acceptable email response times are. Better to have the conversation with your team members and agree standards.
Agreeing out-of-hours standards is important too. At NAA some of us prefer not to receive any emails on weekends, while others prefer to have the option to receive and make decisions about any incoming emails over the weekend so that we start the week with a blank slate and a clear head (though in those cases we have no expectation that any emails sent on the weekends will be responded to). There’s no right or wrong here. The new inputs are not, in and of themselves, necessarily a bad thing. It’s when you feel that you’re required to respond when you’re not supposed to be working that you can feel out of control.
If you’re interested in what turning off automatic updating might mean for your sense of control day-to-day, give this a try. It can be tough at first. There’s attraction in the constant drip, drip of arriving email. I realized after working in this new way for a while that I missed the distraction provided by new arrivals. But that distraction was not really helpful. It was in truth just a form of procrastination. “If I can focus on a new email that’s arrived, then I won’t have to make a decision about that older email that’s already in my inbox that looks daunting, uninspiring, or downright scary”. Better to make the decisions about what’s already there and then focus, undistracted, on what’s new.
Are you ready for more? You decide.