Are You A Slave to Your Email?


When did you last check your email?

I’d bet it was within the last hour. Quite possibly within the last ten minutes. You might well have your inbox open right now, with message alerts jumping up at you.

Almost everyone I talk to feels that email takes up too much of their time.

If you work for an employer, in a traditional office environment, you might have your email open from the moment you get into the office until the moment you shut down your computer at the end of the day.
(And you’ve probably checked email after hours or on the weekends, too.)

If you’re self-employed or work from yourself, it’s probably even worse. You might find yourself worrying about emails during dinner, or when you’re supposed to be having some family time.

The problem isn’t knowing what to do. You’ve read plenty of advice telling you to close the inbox, to avoid checking emails first thing in the day, and to get on with your key tasks first. But are you doing it?

If not, you’re probably making one (or more) of the following excuses:

“Something urgent might come in”
This is the biggie. You tell yourself you need to check your emails just in case. What if that client gets back to you, and needs a response in a hurry? What if the server goes down? What if your kid’s school needs to get in touch?

The truth is, if something is genuinely super-urgent, people will find another way to deal with it. They’ll probably phone, or email someone else.

If you really, truly, have to respond to certain emails within minutes, then get set up with a service like Away Find – so that you can work in peace, knowing that you’ll get a text (or other notification) if a particular person emails you.

“I use my email to store my to-do list”

Some folks keep their email inbox open constantly because their email forms their to-do list (with lots of emails-to-self), or because they need the calendar or the chat feature or some other function.

If your incoming emails are a constant distraction, find a different system for your to-do list. Alternatively, change your email settings so that new emails only arrive at occasional intervals – instead of checking for emails every 5 or 10 minutes, set this to every hour or two.

“How will I keep on top of my messages?”
If you get a lot of emails, you might resist the idea of dealing with them in a batch towards the end of the day. You’re worried that there won’t be time – because at the moment, it feels like you spend half your day (or more) just dealing with emails.

The truth is, the added efficiency from working through your emails in a focused, systematic way will save you a lot of time. Just think about how quickly you can get through a backlog when you’re back at work after a vacation, compared with how long you can take over just a handful of emails on a typical day.

“I’m being really productive.”
Although answering emails might feel productive – you get the quick win of watching that “unread” number go down – it probably isn’t the best use of your time.

Instead of thinking about the amount you get done, consider the value. Wouldn’t it be better to let some emails go unanswered, or send very brief replies, in order to get that big project done instead?

“People expect a quick response.”

If you’re used to responding to emails within an hour or two, you might worry that people will object if they don’t hear back for a day or more. The truth is, most people won’t be at all bothered. They’ll get used to the fact that it takes you a day to get back to them, and they won’t email expecting an instant reply.

“But if I’m not doing emails … what will I do?”
Although not many of us would say this out loud, it’s often lurking in our minds. When we’re feeling stuck at work, not sure what to do next, it’s easy to turn to emails. There’s almost always something in our inbox that requires action – and it’s often easy to see what action is needed.

Don’t use emails as an excuse not to clarify your thinking on something. Instead, take a few minutes to brainstorm or write out a list that helps you move forwards.

Got another tip to add? Or another really, really good excuse to stay a slave to your email? Let us know in the comments…

Written on 10/22/2010 by Ali Hale. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Photo Credit: liewcfJoe M500
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