How To Prevent Email From Dominating Your Day

My email tab was open. Always. As Project Management Consultant I felt the urge of always responding within the hour to clients’ request.

It was the norm not only within the company’s culture but even more within the culture of the professional services industry.

94% of 1,000 people in professional services (investment bankers, consultants, accounts, lawyers, etc) thought that responding to client and colleague emails within an hour was required, according to a 2009 survey by Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter.

To stick to this self- but also industry-imposed rule of “respond within the hour”, technology was of great help. I enabled push-notifications across all my devices. Popup notification on my computer screen, a quick beep on my phone and a red badge icon on the app.

How could I ever miss an email arriving? I would skyrocket in client satisfaction and performance ratings.

This habit extended into the early and late evening hours. Hours beyond any reasonable time to finish work. The last thing I would do before closing my eyes for sleep (literally: I’d be lying in bed when doing this), was going through my inbox, checking whether an email would require a response.

It continued in the morning. The first thing when waking up was to check emails. My alarm would ring, I would take my phone and go where people go in the morning, just to check my inbox.

Slowly but steadily I went (without noticing) from responding within the hour to reading emails upon receipt. Literally, my notifications triggered the urgent feel that anything must be stopped in the moment, so I can revert my attention to my inbox.

This became a destructive process. For my deep work. For work that requires focus and dedicated attention over a longer period of time.

The five minutes between emails arriving in my inbox wasn’t enough. I couldn’t review budgets. I couldn’t review project management plans. I couldn’t get any deep work done. The quality of my deep work suffered. And so did my overall performance.

I needed to change my way of processing emails. My approach for immediate responses to emails was not working, even in an industry that encourages an “always on” work culture.

Before changing my current process, I needed to establish a few principles by which I wanted to process emails. In the end, being off the grid for a whole week wouldn’t be productive either.

My Email Management Principles

Blocks of time for deep work

One goal was to have time for deep work. Uninterrupted blocks of time to get into that flow status.

Times to shut down completely

Another goal was to keep work emails separated from my private life. I wanted to be available but only in windows that I defined. Before and after certain times in the day I wanted to focus on my wife and personal matters.

Maintaining acceptable response times to emails

Emphasising blocking off time for deep work and personal matters, I still wanted to ensure reliability and commitment to my clients. In the professional service role I was in, getting of the grid for more than two days  would be unrealistic (research with the Boston Consulting Group showed that getting off the grid for one day was not only possible but increasing individual and team performance levels).

Don’t be a jerk

I didn’t want to be the jerk who interrupts conversations for the ringing phone.

Ever talked to someone, who is hanging on your every word in your conversation (at least you think so) only to be drawn to check their phone when it beeps?

That someone basically says: “Hey, interesting story (sort of) but I got something more important. Wait for me.”

It doesn’t get any more rude than this.

First, the person assuming that the other one is more important than me is an indirect f*** you.

Second, assuming that I would wait for him/her to return to my conversation after a quick check of the inbox, can only mean that he/she thinks he/she is more important than I.

In sequence of importance: Email. My counterpart. Me.

The interruption of human interaction for the reward of a dopamine shot by checking an email is an indirect way of saying: you don’t interest me. Email does.

I don’t want to be that person. My goal: be present in every conversation I have. If the conversation is not important to me, I’d rather not have it at all than having it willingly interrupted by emails, SMS or phone calls.

Phone calls? Yes, phone calls as well.

When you’re talking to me and you’re interrupting our conversation for an incoming phone call, you let me assume only one thing: the other one is more important than me.

There’s a solution: don’t answer your phone. I’m always surprised by the looks on the faces of other people when I cancel an incoming phone call during our conversation. “You don’t need to take this?” “No, I’m talking to you now.” The sense of importance and appreciation in their face is priceless. Always.

I’m not denying that there will be important phone calls one has to take. But save yourself the small talk that you’re more than willing to interrupt for an incoming phone call. It’s waste.

My Principles in Action

Turn off all email notifications

An easy first step that will eliminate the trigger that causes your brain to release dopamine. The visual or audio reminder.

When I first turned off all notifications something scary happened. My brain, despite all notifications eliminated, triggered notifications itself.

I unconsciously grabbed my phone and checked my inbox. My brain had been conditioned to check my inbox in regular intervals, even though no notification triggered the action.

Scary. Only proof that it was about time to stop this destructive behaviour.

After a few days my brain reverted to normal. By turning off notifications I eliminated the default behaviour of checking my inbox first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

These days none of my devices push email notifications (in my face). I check email at certain times each day. See the following point.

Schedule your time to manage emails

To support the conscious effort of checking emails, I scheduled blocks of time in my calendar for checking my inbox. At the beginning, I didn’t know how long these blocks would need to be. So I scheduled five blocks each 30 minutes over the day.

One at the time of arrival at work, the second at 10.30am, the third just before lunch time, the 4th at 2:30pm and the 5th for 4:30pm. I presumed that this wasn’t going to be enough. I never was that wrong.

I usually received the flood of emails at the start of work. Who knows – maybe people who check their emails before bed time (Who would do that?)

After the first week I scaled the duration of my email blocks back to 20 minutes. With five blocks of email time, I still spend roughly 100 minutes per day on email (on average an employee spends 28% of his/her time on emails each day).

The right frequency

At some point I realised that the frequency of checking emails would directly impact my ability to dedicate extended blocks of time to deep work. Checking and responding to emails only five times per day was ok and far better than my previous destructive on-demand email habit. But I could do better.

So I scaled back the frequency. I would allow more time during each email block (30 minutes) but would check only 3 times per day. One at 10:00 am (still early but leaving time for 1.5-2 hours of deep work before emails), one at 1:00pm and one at 4:00pm. Every three hours.

And to my surprise: nothing happened. No one complaint of getting responses only three times per day. Even better: no one even noticed.

The lesson learned from this for you should be the following:

No one really cares if you respond within the hour. As long as respond within a reasonable time frame (I haven’t heard anyone in my professional career saying that responding every three hours was unreasonable).

I acknowledge that different roles require different frequencies. Whilst I found three hours to be working best for me, it might be four hours for you, or two hours. As long as you dedicate block of time to deep work that must not be interrupted by shallow work, such as emails, you’re set.

Get to inbox zero

The biggest time waster with emails is reading an email twice (or more). Redundancy is an indicator for flawed work flow processes. You’re being inefficient.

With every of my three email sessions per day, inbox zero is my goal. I would do one of the following:

  • Reply when I don’t need to conduct research for my reply. Then archive the email.
  • Reply when I don’t need feedback from other parties on my reply. Then archive the email.
  • Schedule a reply for later in the day. Archive the email.
  • No further action required. Archive the email.
  • Delegation required. Delegate. Then archive the email.

The key is to either action the email there and then or schedule actioning to later in the day. Then archive the email to get to inbox zero. No emails in the inbox equal no distraction and a clear mind.

To get to inbox zero, you’ll need to transfer your required actions into another tool (i.e. a To-Do list manager. I use Remember The Milk).

It’ll take some practice in the beginning to get to inbox zero. What I noticed when I started applying the inbox zero concept as a goal was that anytime I left an email in my inbox I did so to use it later as reference.

I didn’t have the right tools in place to transfer required actions from the email in my to-do list manager. Make sure you have the right tools and you’ll easily get to inbox zero. I get to inbox zero in each of my sessions with four different accounts (work, EffectifyMe, volunteer work and personal).

Use keyboard shortcuts

If playing video games in my early teens to late twenties has taught me anything (besides outstanding motor-control-skills), it’s that keyboard shortcuts save time. Lots of time.

Most email providers offer these keyboard shortcuts (if not, I suggest you switch to Gmail). In Gmail I press Shift + 3 to delete an email. I press E to archive an email. I press C to compose an email, R to reply and F to forward.

Learn these. It will save you time in the long run. Depending on provider, they might be different from Gmail.

Don’t delay this. Start using them today. Within a week or two they will become second nature to your email processing work flow.

You’re set

Eliminating my destructive email management work flow allowed me not only to increase the degree of quality by which I deliver deep work but also the volume.

I can now focus on the important work, being strategically productive rather than chased by urgency.

However, I’m only human. Just the other day, I caught myself others encouraging on the check-email-now approach, acknowledging someone for his light-speed like reply to my email (maybe he just started his second email session of the day?). I haven’t quite finished my transition from the dopamine rewarded instantaneous email management process to a regular one.

In the end, it turned out the client doesn’t care about whether I respond to emails within the hour or within four hours.

What the client cares most about is that the work gets done to the degree of quality agreed. Isn’t that a surprise?