Email is a huge part of our working life - let there be no mistake about it. Yet it can also be one of the biggest stumbling blocks when it actually comes to getting work done!
Different people use their email in very different ways. Some use it as a To-Do List, by leaving the emails they need to respond to, or emails that remind of tasks they need to do sitting in their inbox. Not my method at all, that's for sure. Others see their email as a nuisance - an inconvenience that needs to be avoided as it actually stops them working. "Hey, they don't KNOW I haven't read that email, so I don't have to respond, right?" - sound familiar? I bet we've all been there!
The fact is, as long as peoples attitudes to email continue to differ, we will always have the potential to have communication problems as long as email remains the mainstay of information exchange between businesses around the world and will also hinder productivity amongst the majority of people who don't adhere to a strict system for dealing with it.
Here's how I work with email. As said many times before, this won't work for everybody. In fact, there are certain people with jobs where this just absolutely CANNOT work - however I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where it does.
1) I DON'T LIVE IN MY INBOX
Generally throughout the course of a day, I will go into my Inbox twice - maybe three times to check for my messages. Never first thing in the morning - that's when my energy levels are at their highest so I want to crack on with one of my most labour/mind intensive tasks (Eat those frogs) but usually when I've completed my first 30/10 or 50/10 Pomodoro block. For those reading who understand Pomodoro and think that should be a 25/5 block, then I should point out I suffer with a really ridiculous form of OCD which means I cannot deal with odd numbers!
I'll then check either before or after lunch and, if time permits, before I head home. The way I see it is that email is for the flow and exchange of information - not for the reporting of crises or requests for essential information. If something is mission critical and I am being relied on to provide a fix, then sending me an email is not really the way to get hold of me - phone me!
2) NOTIFICATIONS ARE OFF DURING WORKFLOW TIME
When I'm working on a Pomodoro block of work, email alerts are off. I see an email alert as being the same as a tap on the shoulder - and who can work when they are tapped on the shoulder over a hundred times a day? It just isn't practical or feasible. I do, however, have a pre-defined set of VIP's who ARE allowed to get through to me during this time. The Project Manager I'm working for at any time could be one, my wife is always another!
3) EMAIL SYNC TIMES CHANGE TO REFLECT WHAT I'M DOING
If I'm not feeling strict enough to not check my notifications (we're all weak sometimes, it's true) then rather than fetch my mail automatically, I'll configure my devices to check every hour, or even two hours if needed. This ensures I'm not checking my phone on the off-chance there might be something.
4) INBOX ZERO IS CRUCIAL
From a productivity standpoint, trying to keep your Inbox empty is crucial. When items come in, I do one of three things - I Do, Delegate or Defer the item based on what needs to happen with it. If it will take less than two minutes, and I'm the appropriate person to deal with it, I do it. It's done, gone, fantastic. If it will take longer than two minutes, I defer it to a later date by adding the details of the task I need to do to OmniFocus and filing in an appropriate email folder. I will also defer something if I think it's something I may be interested in, in the future. For example, I may get an email from TicketMaster saying that my festival tickets are being released soon, in which case I will put it in a Someday/Maybe folder and review appropriately.
If I need to delegate it to someone else, then it gets delegated out appropriately and filed, with a reminder that I need to follow up on the task.
Also, there is a Reference folder for those items whereby I don't need to do anything specific with it, however I may need to refer to it in the future - like warranty information for a purchase, or a licence code for some software.
The Inbox Zero technique is one of the best things I picked up from David Allen's GTD book and I cannot recommend it enough!
So I suggest you take the time to look at your email philosophy and make changes appropriately. Do you have an inbox that continually has a three figure number of unread emails? Well you are never going to be motivated as long as you see that. Do you find yourself reading emails more than once as you scan through your inbox? Well, you should only read an email more than once if you really love reading that email - and I don't think there are that many of them around!!
Once you have your technique down, you'll find it so much easier to manage and you never know, you may just find yourself looking at other areas of your life and applying a new philosophy to that as well.