Good thoughts from Josh Sowin.
When I go running, there is a field on my route that is filled with grasshoppers. The field looks ordinary from a distance. But once I get to it, grasshoppers start jumping out everywhere.
The first few times that I went through it I would speed up to try and get away from them. But I could never outrun the grasshoppers. They would just jump out as I went along, regardless of how fast or slow I was going. They jumped out where I was precisely because I was there. Going faster didn’t get me past the grasshoppers; it just made them jump out sooner.
So this immediately made me think of email. Email contains a paradox, like these grasshoppers: Going faster doesn’t mean you’ll get less. In fact, it might mean that you’ll get even more, because email responds to your presence, just like the grasshoppers.
So if you try to overcome email overload by doing email faster and more often, you won’t end up getting ahead. You’ll just end up with a lot more email to keep up with.
If you want more email, that’s fine. I’m not against email, and a lot of important work gets done through it. (And I probably don’t say that enough.) But if you want to preserve a good chunk of time for other responsibilities that you (hopefully) have, then the solution is to reduce your number of email cycles.
In other words, if you want to decrease the amount of email that you have to attend to, the main solution is not to go faster.
Yes, you should go faster and be more efficient at processing your email. But if that’s all you do, you’ll just see more email coming your way than you would have before. What you need to do is both become more efficient at processing email and at the same time decrease the number of times that you check email each day.
In other words, the way to create more time for other things is to decrease the number of email cycles in your routine.
Last of all, an objection. Someone will say “but if I check email less, then I’ll be less responsive.” Well, that’s probably true. I’m not saying that you have to do this. But realize that this trade-off exists on both sides of the equation. For if you choose to be almost immediately responsive with email, then you will get less long-term and important non-email stuff done. And that’s a problem, too.
It’s really up to you. There’s not necessarily a right or wrong here. It depends upon the nature of your responsibilities, your strengths, and what your organization needs you to be focusing on. Things may also fluctuate for the same person from season to season. (And, it’s worth pointing out that you can probably find a balance that preserves a good level of responsiveness even if it is less than you might initially default to.)
You make the call. Just be aware of the likely trade-off. If you end up doing less non-email work in order to give more time and attention to email, just make sure that you are doing that on purpose rather than automatically assuming that that is the way it has to be.
Gmail now has an “undo send” feature.
I would be really interested in knowing how many hours a day everyone out there spends doing email.
How much time do you spend on email each day?
How many emails a day do you get?
And, if desired: How do you feel about that?
This is an interesting use of Jott I’ve just discovered, and which got me to sign up for their paid monthly plan (Jott used to be free, but now it isn’t).
Here’s a summary of what Jott is: Jott allows you to call a number to leave a note for yourself. The system then converts the message to text and emails it to you. You can then read your message in the email, or click to listen to it from the email as well. It is a good “capture” tool for when you are on the go or not in a place where you could write something down or enter it directly into your computer.
Jott also allows you to add additional people, so that instead of just being able to jott yourself, you can also jott the people you add. So, for example, if you have an assistant you can jott that person various to-do items that come up during the day, and she/he will receive them by email.
Now, following from that, here is the interesting use: You don’t have to limit your thinking with it to simply sending yourself and others to-do items. You can also use it as a simple and convenient method for sending just regular emails, without having to type them in your email client. This can be useful when you’re on the go, but more than that can be a way to save time — instead of writing out an email, you can just speak it into Jott and let Jott do the rest.
Another benefit is this: As I discuss elsewhere, I recommend that when you are giving focused time to a project, you focus on that project entirely and shut down your email. But sometimes, the course of your work on the project will require you to send an email — which means you’ll be opening up your email client and risk getting side tracked into handling all of your email when you intent was just to send one. Jott is a solution to this: you can now still send that email, without having to open up your email program at all.
One nuance: It could turn out to be the case that people don’t generally like receiving “voice to text” emails (although the transcription is really good, and the ability to listen may add a good personal touch). If so, then it might be good to limit this use simply to your immediate team members where everyone sees and likes the efficiency this creates for the common workflow.
OK, two nuances: Since this makes it even easier to send email, it’s possible that the result could easily be that you begin sending out an even greater proliferation of email. So it would be a good idea to be aware of that so that you don’t end up sending more email simply because it’s easier.
I know it can be iffy to compare ordinary mail to email. But, here goes.
Before delivering the mail on any given day, one of the first thing the Post Office does is sort it. Each address’s mail gets grouped together so that it can be delivered in order.
But imagine what would happen if, when the postal worker was out the door and half way to your house, they called him back and said “Oh, new mail just arrived for Fred Smith! Come back and get it so you can add it to your pile!” Since new mail is always arriving, the poor postal worker would never get to actually delivering any of the mail.
There is much wisdom in batching things. Things that make it into the batch get done with the batch. Things that arrive during or after, get done in the next batch — not added into the current batch right away.
Here’s the interesting thing: In the scenario above where the postal worker continually goes back to get the new mail, it’s not as though the mail volume is any higher. He’s not prevented from actually delivering the mail by the fact that there is “so much.” He’s prevented by his process; by his approach. In the batched approach, there is just as much mail. It just happens to actually get delivered.
I realize that there are limitations to this. But the general principle is very useful. If you check your email continually, you’ll never make progress on the other work that you have to do — or on the tasks that your email has generated which have to be done outside of email.
Is “never” an overstatement? Well, a bit. But you get the point.
Let’s say that you are working at your home in an office or other room designated for doing some work. You realize that tomorrow is garbage day. So you empty your trash sitting beside you, go through the rest of the house and do the same, and then sit back down to work.
You jot some notes down on a piece of paper and decide you don’t need them. So you throw the paper away, into the trash can you just emptied. Do you then empty the trash can again right away? Nobody would do that. You’d never get anything done. Instead, you let the trash collect, and then empty it again at a designated time in about a week.
Yet, when it comes to email, many of us insist on “taking out the trash” continually. This amounts to a continual interruption. You wouldn’t take the trash out every time you throw something away. Likewise, don’t check your email every time something new comes in. Best of all, shut it down between those times if possible, or at least minimize the window and turn off the bell.
(Nuance: I know that there are occassions when it does pay off to keep processing new messages right away, such as when you are in the middle of a conversation thread with some folks. But I’m saying: Don’t make continual checking your ongoing, default, general mode of opeation.)
From the Gmail blog:
One of the features that makes Gmail different is its use of labels instead of folders. Sure, labels can serve pretty much the same purpose — they can help organize mail or flag messages for follow up. And unlike with folders, messages can have several labels, so if I get an email from a friend about a trip we’re taking together, I can add both a “Friends” and a “Travel” label to it.
But it’s not always obvious how to use labels, especially for people who are new to Gmail and used to using folders, and it hasn’t helped that some common tasks have been more complicated than they should be. For instance, to move an email out of your inbox and into a label you first had to apply the label using the “More actions” menu and then click “Archive.”
Starting today [Feb 3], the buttons and menus at the top of your inbox will look a bit different:
Instead of having to first apply the label and then archive, you can just use the “Move to” button to label and archive in a single step — just like you would with a folder. If you just want to add or remove a label, use the new “Labels” button. Auto-complete works, so for those of you with a lot of labels, you can select the one you want just by typing the first couple characters.
(HT: Glenn Brooke)
I talk about this in my post on how to get your email inbox to zero every day, but it is worth discussing again from time to time.
When it comes to checking your email, the main rule is: Do not check email continually. Most of us have lots of work to do other than email. If you are checking email continually, you are dividing your focus. As a result, your other work is going to take a lot longer. Plus, you will probably find yourself less satisfied with your day.
Therefore, I recommend checking your email at set times throughout the day. Your frequency on this will depend upon the nature of your job. It might need to be every hour, or even every half hour. Or it might be once in the morning, once before lunch, and once before going home. I usually recommend once per hour.
Each time that you check email, process it all the way to zero. Do not leave something in your inbox because you “don’t know what to do with it.” If you don’t process your email to zero each time you check it, the unprocessed emails will start to feel like loose ends that nag you throughout the day.
If an email contains a long action item, processing to zero doesn’t mean that you need to do that action right away. It means that you either need to park that email in a working folder (“answer,” “read,” or “hold”) for attention later on, or park the action on a list somewhere and the email itself in a support file (if you will need to refer to it). I give more details on how to process your email in my post on getting your email inbox to zero every day.
When you are done checking email, turn your attention back to your other work and focus on that. Make sure the bell that notifies you of new email is turned off. You won’t miss anything — when it’s time to check email again, turn your attention back to your email program and process all the new mail down to zero again. If you fear you won’t see an important email soon enough, then just increase the number of times you check email per day. But do not default back to the continual-checking-mode. Whatever you do, do not check your email continually.
As I discuss in my series of posts on email, one of the best practices for email management is to process your email inbox to zero every day. This is both doable and fundamental to effective workflow.
But there are times when your overall workflow is best served by taking a few days off from email — by taking an email vacation, even though you continue to do your other work during that time.
Why Email Vacations Can Be Helpful
Why would you need to take an email vacation? Well, sometimes you might have a project that is so large that it deserves concentrated focus for a period of several days. Checking your email during this period can disrupt your flow and take you out of the zone, thus diminishing your effectiveness and extending the time the project takes. Plus, email could open up a long rabbit trail that will take you away from the project entirely.
Other times, you may have just had enough and need a break. This is OK. In fact, sometimes you can find yourself in a vicious cycle where accomplishing email-related work is simply creating more work. You feel like you aren’t getting anywhere because completing things is just opening up way more loops that need to be addressed. Sometimes the best way to address that situation is to step away from email for a day or two and let things settle out.
Being productive is not about gutting out your email regardless of how you feel or what your situation is. Rather, being productive is precisely what enables you to take the time to step back, gain perspective, and take a day or two away from email. In fact, this is not only made possible by being productive, but is probably a necessary part of the foundation for remaining productive.
As I write this, this idea is beginning to feel more radical than I first thought, even though I have done this off and on for many years. It feels very strange to say “take a day or two away from email if you need.” That feels risky. And if you did it arbitrarily, it would be. So let me give you an example and then a few principles.
Here’s an example. We just moved into a new house, and so we have had all of the unpacking and organizing and various stuff that goes along with a move. So I just took a five day email vacation to finish this up as quickly as possible. (By the way, for anyone wondering from my earlier comment whether there could be any type of project that doesn’t require email, this is one example!)
The open loops involved in needing to get your house put away and office setup are the kind that create drag on your life if not dealt with quickly. So I decided it would be most effective to shut email off and get the remaining things done in 5 days rather than also do all my regular email and online stuff during that time and extend the project to 8 days or more. Also, I like being able to focus like this.
It just so happened that these last 5 days fell over the Thanksgiving holiday. So, one could object that this really wasn’t an email holiday — most people had a long weekend. But that gets to one of the key principles in all this: you need to time your email vacations strategically. I intentionally put my “email vacation” during a time when it would have minimal impact on my ongoing responsibilities. (Plus, I normally would have kept up with email at least 3 out of those 5 days, so this was a real email vacation.)
Another thing I wanted to do over the holiday was relax, and the email break served that as well. Finishing all the move-in stuff, plus keeping up with my email, would have likely meant that email would have actually taken the place of the time I needed to spend relaxing with my family.
Now, because I took 5 days away from email, I’m in a much better place to keep up with my email and ongoing responsibilities this week with minimal drag (not having all the move-in stuff hanging over my head and diverting my focus). By segmenting the last part of my move-in project from email, rather than doing both currently, both are actually accomplished more quickly.
So this email vacation was not contrary to being effective with email, but actually served that cause. And it is not contrary to the fundamental principle of processing your email to zero every day, but rather is one of the primary benefits of keeping up with email.
What Makes Email Vacations Possible
In other words, processing email to zero every day is precisely what makes email vacations possible. First, if you are current with your email, you don’t need to worry that you are forgetting about some huge task buried in your inbox. Second, because you know you’ll be getting your email right back to zero in a few days and be right back on top of things.
Best Practices for Email Vacations
Last, let me suggest a few best practices for taking email vacations. First, I already mentioned that you should time them strategically. Don’t take them arbitrarily (although sometimes you will spontaneously need to take one, which is just fine), but seek to place them in spots that will create minimal disruption.
Second, remain available by other means for important matters that are highly urgent. For example, the people you work with should know they can reach you by phone or text message whenever there is an immediate need.
Third, if you are taking more than a one-day email vacation and its during the work-week, it’s probably the best idea to create an auto response saying you’ll be away from email. I didn’t do this (sorry) because I forgot, but the fact that my 5-day email vacation was over a holiday weekend reduced the need for that.