Email is a great tool that can also be a huge distraction. Research shows that if we don't control our inbox, it will end up controlling us. This week we look at some ways to tackle that.
Welcome to episode thirteen of the Leadership Today podcast. Each week we provide practical advice to address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges.
This week we are looking at gaining control over our email inbox. It’s easy to forget that email is a relatively new addition to the workplace. When I entered the workforce in the 1990s, I was lucky to receive 5 emails in a day. There was no way anyone would send confidential information by email - it was seen as much less risky and more convenient to fax or mail a document.
As leaders, we’re still figuring out how to make the most out of email, instant messaging, and services like Slack, while avoiding the downside distractions.
You see it at conferences and training sessions - the leader who is constantly checking their phone and then dashing out during every break to feverishly respond to emails and messages. It’s as if their team can’t survive even a few hours without them, let alone a day. In some organisations its endemic - as people walk into a room for a meeting, they all set up their laptops, continuing to smash through their inbox while providing only a minimal amount of attention to what’s happening in the room. It’s like we’re constantly skating across the surface of multiple tasks rather than really applying ourselves to the things that matter.
People approach the challenge of email in different ways. I once interviewed a senior executive and asked about how they manage competing priorities. The example they provided involved how they dealt with the hundreds of emails in their inbox when they returned from holidays. They explained that it was quite simple - they just selected all emails and hit delete. They argued that if an issue was important enough, surely someone would get back to them. I still don’t know if that approach was brilliant or negligent.
Here’s what some recently published research (http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fapl0000343) tells us about email use:
Researchers found that knowledge workers spend 28% of their workweek reading and responding to email.
Staff at Microsoft reported that their work was interrupted by email alerts an average of 4 times per hour, with each interruption causing a further 5 minute delay to their other work. Those delays add up to a third of their time, or 2.5 hours per day.
And it may be even worse than that - researchers found the average worker checks email 90 times per day - that’s once every 5 minutes - and that it takes 1 minute to resume work after checking email. So that’s another 90 minutes which isn’t including the time taken on the email itself. Bouncing from email to email across a day makes it practically impossible to complete any work requiring concentration or creative thought.
Those with high email demands where email is not central to their job experience a lack of progress. They feel like they’re just not getting ahead.
As a result, researchers found that those with low self-control ended up focusing on routine management activities rather than leadership. Reacting to emails made them a less effective leader.
It’s little surprise then that leaders I work with typically list ‘email’ and ‘meetings’ as the top two impediments to getting their work done. They feel the stress. They know their being reactive. They see the important being smashed by the urgent. They know they have a fixed amount of time every day, and that email is getting in the way of the activities that allow leaders to be effective. But they’re not sure what to do about it.
Here are seven ideas to take charge of your email:
Make a mental shift - recognise that your email inbox is effectively a summary of other people’s to-do lists. As a leader, your inbox probably doesn’t contain your most important work.
Switch off alerts on everything - your computer, phone, watch - anything that prompts you that a new email or message has arrived.
Instead of checking email 90 times, try 4 focused times. Schedule time in your calendar and use the time you have allotted, then get back to your other work.
Don’t just hit reply straight away - assess whether a conversation is needed. Try phone calls for a day. Or try grouping issues together so you can have one conversation about multiple topics. The fewer emails you send, the fewer you get back.
Set standards - help people to consider when it is okay to reply all to everyone cc’d, that clear subject lines help, and to put requests at the start of emails rather than being hidden in mounds of text. One organisation I’ve seen sends people a report each month outlining where the individual sits in terms of the number of emails they send. There isn’t any judgement - but letting someone know that they send more emails than 90% of others in this organisation usually reduces the number of emails they send.
If your team can’t operate without you, you probably need to vary the way you lead. Delegate more, be clear about accountabilities, and let them know you trust them to deal with issues that arise.
Keep experimenting and trying new approaches - I experiment with multiple to-do lists and approaches to organising my day each year, refining my approach as I go. It’s not always big changes - there’s a lot of power in continuous refinement and improvement.
Email is like any tool - it’s not inherently good or bad. We need a plan and approach that works for us - one that leaves us with a sense of control, rather than being a victim of our inbox. This week think about your approach to email - and take control before it controls you.