The real reason you can’t get control of email

Lots of systems, tools, and games promise to help you get a handle on your email.  But there’s a really simple truth about managing email that most people overlook. And if you don’t acknowledge it, no email tip, trick, game or technique is going to work for you.

Here it is: email isn’t something to squeeze in around your real work. Email is real work, too, and it takes real, dedicated time.

The ‘skim and skip’ trap

That’s probably not how you’ve been thinking about email. You’re hardly alone.

Many people schedule their days heavily and somehow think that they’ll keep on top of email in the brief gaps between meetings and ‘real work’. Or they multitask by jumping between email and other work, frantically skimming every message as it lands in their inbox, living with the constant fear they will miss something important. As their message count keeps spiraling, email bleeds into their personal time. They try to catch up in line at the supermarket, at the family dinner table or while watching TV.

People who treat email this way tend to get caught in ‘skim and skip’ mode. Because they don’t allow time to really deal with their email (I call this ‘processing’) in a more thoughtful way, they scan for messages that seem easy, exciting, or critical to deal with, leaving anything that seems more complicated until later.

‘Later’ never comes

If you deal with email this way, you’re setting yourself up for problems.

  • First, that mythical ‘later’ never seems to come, which means that important matters in the emails you’ve been skipping fall by the wayside.
  • Those skipped messages still weigh on you, especially if you’ve flagged them or marked them unread, and add to your stress.
  • If you read those lingering messages repeatedly without acting on them, you’re working less efficiently.
  • When email creeps into any pocket of time that appears during the day, you lose the restorative breaks your brain needs. Letting your mind wander when you’re in the supermarket queue can actually be more productive than checking your email. Seemingly idle times like that are often the very moments we have mental breakthroughs.
  • If you constantly switch to email while doing other tasks, the quality of both suffers.

Making room for email

Did any of that sound familiar? Here’s how to handle your email more efficiently and productively…

  • First, and most importantly, make the mental shift to acknowledging that email is real work that deserves real time and attention. Yes, everyone gets spam and junk and system generated messages they don’t read. And you should make every effort to minimise those (see next bullet). But the rest of the messages are probably actual work, from both internal and external customers.
  • Cut down on the time you need for email by stemming the flow. Create email rules or filters so that messages you don’t actually need to read either get automatically deleted or sent to a folder. Make sure that the messages get labeled as “read” so that the folders don’t add to your stress by showing lots of unread messages. You can also use a service to bundle non-urgent emails like professional newsletters into a daily digest which you can read at your convenience.
  • Be realistic about how much time it will take to manage the work that comes to you via email. Use this as a starting point: the average professional gets about 100 messages per day, and each messages takes an average of two minutes to process. That’s 200 minutes, or three hours and 20 minutes, of email (otherwise known as WORK) to do every day. If you have a day full of meetings and can’t dedicate time to your messages that day, it’s safe to assume you’ll need more than six hours tomorrow. Plan accordingly.
  • Start leaving more room on your calendar. You need some unscheduled time not just for email, but also for proactive work.
  • Decide how many times per day you really need to review email —that is, check your inbox for messages that need immediate action. The answer will depend on your job, but it’s probably less often than you currently review email. I’ve found that two or three reviews per day works well for a lot of professionals. I also recommend reviewing email on a handheld device because you’re less likely to get permanently distracted on your device (it’s too small) than you would be on your computer.
  • You’ll also need to decide how often you need to process email, which means thoughtfully reading each message and deciding what action to take on it. I suggest processing your inbox down to zero at least a couple of times per week and doing your processing on your computer.
  • Whatever schedule you decide on for processing your email, give it your full thought and attention when that time comes. Read each message fully, don’t just skim it. Act on it if you can dispatch it in a few minutes or less. Otherwise, add it to your task list. And while you’re doing this, you must stop the download of incoming messages while you work to clear all your current ones. Work in offline mode while you’re processing your messages, otherwise you’ll find you won’t get very far. Every time you deal with one message, one or more new messages will come in. This would be like trying to shovel a hole while someone stands across from you and throws the dirt back in!

It might sound paradoxical, but when you start treating email as real work, you’ll find that it takes less time and that it isn’t a constant source of stress and anxiety anymore.


The Smart Working Handbook

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  • Steuart Snooks

    Well written Maura, you’re onto something when you say that we need to start treating email as ‘real work’. I advocate that people actually schedule time in their calendar to deal with email just as they do for meetings and phone appointments/teleconferences. For some reason, people book the latter two into their calendar but not email. Yet each of them is exactly the same – a conversation between two or more people!

  • Dara Sklar

    Thanks, Maura – this is really well articulated.


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