Stop Letting Email Control Your Work Day
One of the very first lectures I give each year to new MBA students is about time management. By the time they arrive in my classroom, they are two days into the fall term, and I can already see that some of them are barely keeping their heads above water. I see this lecture as both a reality check and a breath of fresh air. They will never get everything done, but they can get the important things done. Simply giving them permission to take control of their priorities — focusing on the “management” portion of time management — seems to lift some of the tension from the room.
Email in particular is a major contributor to employees’ perceptions of feeling stressed or overwhelmed, according to a 2011 study. In their research, the authors concluded that the email inbox itself has become a symbol of stress and overload. Combine that with a 2012 McKinsey report that found employees spend approximately 28% of their time in the office responding to, reading, or composing emails. The average person checks his or her email upwards of seventy times per day, and on the high end that number approaches 350 times! Companies need to pay attention. Employees who feel more control over their days are generally more satisfied at work. And it should come as no surprise that high levels of stress, perceived or otherwise, correlate with lower performance. Clearly, we need to learn to make email work for us and re-frame it as a tool for executing on our priorities. But the first step is having clear priorities.
What are your priorities?
The first thing to do is to take an inventory of all the tasks that make up your day, from answering phone calls to tackling that huge project. Break down large items into smaller ones. For example, if you have to write a report for your boss on how to recruit more women for the corporate board, you might start by breaking it up into smaller segments: You might start with finding research on the number of women currently serving on corporate boards, recruiters who specialize in finding top women for board seats, and the top women in your industry. Then you could begin to write a report or presentation with the information you have found and refine it before the next meeting with your boss.
Once you have this inventory, you can begin to categorize it. Covey’s time management matrix is a good tool for this. Covey places tasks into four quadrants:
- Quadrant I: tasks that are urgent and important. These tasks would include responding to crises or hard deadlines.
- Quadrant II: tasks that are important but not urgent. Think relationship building, planning, and preparation.
- Quadrant III: tasks that are urgent but not important. This is where many of our emails fall, as well as interruptions, and some meetings.
- Quadrant IV: tasks that are neither urgent nor important. This is pretty self-explanatory.
Much of our time is taken up with quadrants I and III (the email zone). If you’re spending too much time in quadrant IV, you have a serious problem. Get rid of as many of these tasks as possible. Quadrant II, however, does not get nearly enough attention. These are the tasks that demand that you take your time, perhaps to think quietly and plan your next steps. Aside from the obvious benefits of simply being better prepared, there is a real benefit to stepping away and immersing yourself in a mentally challenging or forward-thinking task.
Refining your priorities
The benefit of doing this inventory and categorization is that it prepares you to make meaningful to-do lists and better answer the question, “How is my time best spent right now?”
It also makes conversations with colleagues about workload much more productive. Once you know what your priorities are, you can use other people’s input to refine them. While simply saying “I don’t have time right now” may come across as dismissive, framing responses to requests in terms of priorities begins a conversation. If faced with taking on another project, your team will be more effective if everyone knows what other teammates’ priorities are. Cross-functional and team-based projects are increasingly common, so this kind of frank discussion can lead to fewer problems down the road.
Understanding your priorities are can also help in discussions concerning your performance. If you and your supervisor disagree on your priorities, that’s a problem better addressed frankly and frequently. Don’t wait for your annual review. This conversation can happen in the form of a weekly email simply outlining what you’re working on and how you are breaking down your time. Which returns this discussion to email.
Having a communication strategy to execute your priorities
With your priorities and goals clear, your to-do list refined, and your calendar feeling slightly more like your own, it’s time to turn to the inbox. Before getting into how to make your email work for you, there are a few truisms about email that will inform your next steps.
Most of the power in an email conversation is with the sender. An unsent email does not require a response, and a sent email initiates a series of actions or inactions (arguably just as active a decision) on the part of the recipient. It’s clear that we need to reframe email: It is not really like a face-to-face conversation, for example, given the asynchronous nature of the interaction. It is also not a long form kind of communication, but rather a delivery system for information. And finally, it is definitely not the best choice for all of your daily communications, although most of us treat it as such. More than anything else, it is a communications tool to be deployed in the execution of strategy. And communicating strategically is essential to executing broader points of strategy.
Consider this scenario: I want to get in touch with my 30-something daughter to ask her a question. Am I going to email her a memo with bullet points and numbered questions at the end? Not if I want any kind of response. My best bet is going to be to send a quick text message (or maybe a Snap Chat!) and possibly follow up with a phone call if I don’t hear back.
When you’re sending a work-related email, you should go through a similar thought process and think in terms of communication strategy: Who is my audience, what message do I need to convey, what response do I want, and what channel is best for reaching this audience? These are all discrete issues to consider, but each informs the other. The right message sent through the wrong channel is unlikely to get you the response you need, and the wrong message to the right person is simply a waste of time. Let’s discuss each one of these — audience, message, response, and channel — and how changing our email habits relating to each one can improve our time management.
Audience. Before considering anything else, think about who you are attempting to communicate with. Be precise when coming up with this list, and be thoughtful. Are you conveying information that these people need to be aware of, or are you sure you’re going to the right person for your question?
With the idea of sending fewer emails to get fewer emails, be especially thoughtful about who is copied. Creating norms within your organization regarding “to” and “cc” lines is a conversation worth having. State explicitly that those in the cc field are included for information purposes only and are not expected — indeed are discouraged — from participating in further discussion. This simultaneously reduces inflow of emails and takes pressure off those in the cc line to respond.
Message. There is a golden rule for emails: write emails the way you would like to read them. Nobody responds well to a massive block of text. As with your audience, be precise with your message and particularly the subject line. Think through document design: put the important messages and questions at the beginning, where you’re sure they’ll at least be skimmed.
Channel. There was a time when emails were exciting. It was a new world and a new way of communicating. The inbox was novel, the phrase “you’ve got mail” thrilled and delighted.
No longer. As you’re consider what to put in an email and to whom it should be sent, consider this as well: should you even send the email? One of the problems with email is that the satisfaction gleaned from hitting “send” is one-sided. The sender is absolved of any guilt associated with having an outstanding to-do item and might be free to turn to quadrant II tasks, but the recipient is suddenly interrupted with a quadrant I or III task. As discussed earlier, this lack of control on the part of the recipient can lead to the perception of lack of control and therefore stress.
Might it not be more efficient to send a text, make a quick call, or even walk down the hall to address a question in person? Remember, this discussion is not about making your emails better; it’s about managing your time and your priorities. If communicating through a different channel means you are more efficient, it might be time to rethink clicking send.
Response. Finally, be precise in what you expect as a response. Knowing what you do about your audience and the message you want to send, how do you want each recipient to reply?
With the above in mind, especially as a manager, be aware of the concerns and priorities of your direct reports. While you might send a quick email on a Saturday morning, using it more as a reminder for Monday, your employee might see it and think it must be addressed immediately. You may have unwittingly ruined their weekend, brought resentment into the relationship, and begun the next week badly already, all because you thought of some to-do item over your Saturday morning coffee.
And here is where we circle back to audience, and then message, channel, and response. Thinking strategically about your communication will help you stay on top of your time and your priorities. Upon considering all of these, here are some key takeaways.
- Be considerate. While you are managing your priorities, so are your colleagues. Think of that before blasting out an email at 6pm on a Friday.
- Be deliberate. Set your priorities and consider how your actions align with realizing them.
- Be protective. Realize your points of stress and distraction, and do what you can to shield yourself from these. Turn off your email program when you’re deep into your work. Communicate with your team to let them know when you will not be checking email — and stick to it.
As professionals, many of us bill time by the hour. We are paid for our expertise, our ability to identify problems and formulate solutions. And yet when faced with this basic problem of how to manage our days, we are flummoxed.
In an era of fast-paced offices, instant gratification, and constant access, one of the most important things we can do personally and professionally is take a step back. Taking the time to be thoughtful about our actions and responses can ultimately leave us with more time and more bandwidth to do our jobs well — and be happier outside of work as well.