Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Want to spend LESS time on email? Give it MORE attention!

Does this sound familiar?   

You wake up at the crack of dawn, reach for your smart-phone from the bedside stand, and scan your email.  You note a few messages that will need immediate attention, and then you are ready to move to the next part of your day: coffee.  While you sip, you take another look at your email, this time deleting some, opening/reading/closing several, and replying to one or two.  A few, based on the subject heading alone, leave you either silently fuming or stressed at what you think you'll have to deal with later.  

Finally you arrive at work, and your first step is to open your email on a bigger screen (tablet, laptop or desktop).  You revisit (for up to the 3rd time) the messages you have previously scanned, plus the new arrivals.  On this pass, you respond to some messages (often the "easy" or urgent ones); flag the ones that "need to be handled TODAY!";  and leave quite a few untouched as you think don't have time to address them, or you don't know what to do, or you don't want to do the thing that needs to be done.  

These two patterns, scanning-but-not-acting-on messages on your phone, and incompletely dealing with messages when on your bigger screen, repeat themselves throughout the day, often while you are in between meetings or patients, or during meetings and conference calls.  

By the end of the day, you still have dozens (or more) of messages in your inbox, and you are sick and tired of email and the fact that it sucks up every free minute of your day.

There is a solution:  give your email more of your undivided attention.

Much has been written about how to best manage email, including folder structure, volume reduction, composition practices,  and various processing strategies.   I have a particular affinity for Merlin Mann's "inbox zero" method of processing.  I've written a short piece about that method here.

However, my point today applies method or structure is used, and whether you process your email all by your self, with the help of an assistant, or by using a filtering app such as SaneBox.   

If you re-read the scenario at the beginning of this post, you'll see the common theme:  looking at messages -- skimming subject lines or opening and closing messages -- without doing anything to move toward completion.

To make matters worse, all this scanning and skimming is often happening while we are trying to do something else:  attend a meeting or conference call, work on a project, and so on.

Put yet another way, rather than ATTENDING to messages, we are AVOIDING messages.  The productivity blogger Craig Jarrow calls this "playing with" our email , as in the way children play with  food - moving it around on the plate, but not eating.

If you are ready for a change, try these guidelines to operationalize the "magic potion" of attention.

  • Don't look at any email (either the subject line or the message itself) without taking at least one concrete step toward completing what needs to be done.   Processing even one email through to completion is better than skimming twenty.
  • Process email in intermittent batches through out the day, and fully focus on email.  No more email-while-on-a-conference-call!
  • A batch can last 5 minutes or an hour, based on the amount of time you have.  The number of batches per day depends on the volume of messages you need to deal with.  
  • If you are worried about urgent messages, do "emergency scans" in between batches aimed at looking just for those messages, and ignoring the rest.  You can do this.
  • Is your access to email during most of the day on your phone?  It may be difficult to fully process messages, especially long replies and filing.  Use your phone for these two actions only:   DELETE or  answer URGENT messages.  Leave everything else for your fully set up device.

I have been using this method successfully for nearly 10 years, with a daily email volume of  200+ messages per day.   

What do I mean by "success?"  I spend less time processing, the time I spend is more pleasant, and I don't worry about email when I am not processing.

I hope you will give this method a try -and let me know how it goes.