The email prowess of leaders doesn’t get the promotions, raises, bonuses, and accolades. It is just fuel for your email addiction.
Customer delight, attracting, motivating, and retaining top talent, creating value, incubating innovation, and leaving a legacy of service are what matters. I hope this mock epitaph helps you (leader)SHIFT yourself back into the land of priorities when you feel conflicted about not spending enough time on email!
I can attest that it is possible to change one’s behavior after recovering from an email addiction. It is essential, however, to learn how to recognize the signs:
- When the chime rings, do you rush straight to your inbox like Pavlov’s dog?
- Do you feel that you accomplish little in your workday besides emailing?
- Is your inbox used as both your primary to-do list and inbox?
- Do you check your email at every red light, at the store checkout line, while waiting for your dinner companion to come back from the bathroom?
You might have a problem if you answered YES to any of these questions. To overcome email addiction, we recommend the following 12-Step Program:
1. Admit that you have a problem.
It is important for you to acknowledge that you have a problem. Admitting there’s an issue would help if you did this to carry the process further. Only then can you challenge yourself to grow.
2. Disable notifications.
We are alerted by interrupting chimes and pop-ups every time we receive an email. The time it takes the mind to regain focus and concentration after an interruption varies depending on the research you read. Multiply that by the number of emails you receive daily to get an idea of how much time you may be wasting by dealing with them one at a time as they enter your inbox.
3. Set realistic goals.
Robert Heinlein once said, “When we don’t have clearly defined goals, we turn to trivial acts.” Checking email all day and mostly all night is trivial work for most roles. The most influential leaders prioritize their time according to their ‘big rocks’ on any given day (Stephen Covey’s analogy from First Things First). Lingering in email is easy to delude yourself into thinking you are busy if you are not focused on priorities. Of course, being busy does not mean you are productive.
4. Communicate emergencies using a different tool with your team.
Is the email important? Certainly, but a crisis of life and death? Not likely. Fire alarms sound loud and persistently if a building is on fire. Despite this, people send too many emails that may or may not be noticed in a timely enough manner if there is an urgent customer or production issue. Discuss the most appropriate method with your teams, such as a telephone call, text, or face-to-face meeting. Communicate essential but non-urgent matters via email and agree on standard response time expectations. As soon as everyone on the team has approved a standard communication protocol, they will not constantly check their email.
5. Plan your email time on your calendar as you would any other task.
Rather than being at its beck and call throughout the day, handle emails at periodic intervals, as appropriate for your role, functional area, communication protocols with your team, and contextual expectations (see #4). For instance:
- In the case of a very senior executive who is primarily focused on strategic initiatives, email can be effectively processed two to three times a day. Lucky ones can have a trusted admin help filter and prioritize the inbox intraday.
- To meet response time targets, a customer service representative may have to handle infrequent email blocks of time, such as a few minutes at the top of the hour or even a half-hour.
Occasionally scanning your inbox for something you might be expecting is OK but get back to non-email business until the next email time block.
6. To-do lists should be kept separately.
An inbox is a poor substitute for a robust task management system. Organize all your commitments in a single place (or as few places as possible) that you can access from a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Outlook’s To-Do app is fantastic, and Gmail’s Tasks feature has been dramatically enhanced. You can also choose from many cloud task management and project management apps.
7. When processing emails, use the 4D’s.
Keeping email in the inbox for too long exacerbates the tendency to spend too much time on it. It is unnecessary to examine an email more than once after the first time. Productivity experts around the world hail the 4D’s.
- Delete – yup, broom it as soon as possible
- Respond and file it right away if possible
- Delegate – and keep track of who and by when in a task item.
- Defer – add the action generated by the email to your to-*do list (see #6) for later completion or put it on your calendar for a specific meeting time and date.
8. Send the message later.
Even half-hearted work-life balance sermons can’t stop people from replying to emails sent on nights and weekends, creating a self-reinforcing email crescendo beyond regular business hours. You may only be able to catch up at night or on weekends, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot by creating more! Send it at a less disruptive time by using Delay Delivery in Outlook or Boomerang for Gmail.
9- Don’t let crunch time sneak up on you.
Our Out-of-Office feature can be used whenever you need it. Set an Automatic Reply to communicate your inability to respond ‘quickly’ when you need uninterrupted focus. For example: “I need uninterrupted attention today.”. Call me if this is urgent. I will respond by COB tomorrow. Then you can crank without being distracted by email.
10. Keep your email filing system as simple as possible.
Don’t complicate things, stupid! It will take you much longer to organize emails in a magnificent but confusing system of dozens and hundreds of folders and subfolders than to search for keywords in a much simpler method. I have seen effective filing methods using quarters, projects, and significant responsibility areas.
11. Put your phone and laptop away.
Establish the discipline of disengaging from email by a reasonable time every evening. An improved night’s sleep will benefit your focus, productivity, and overall health and well-being!
12. Engage a partner to hold you accountable.
Accountability increases the likelihood of following through. Get your colleagues, friends, family members, even Siri or Alexa to help you kick the email habit. You can let them know what you’re up to, and they can nudge you, call you out, or even hide your devices.
Continue washing, rinsing, and repeating. Eventually, your neural patterns will be rewired by ticking off emails, which takes discipline and practice on your part. It takes commitment to do anything well. The best way to get bigger muscles is to commit to these tips until they become habits. If you watch Arnold Schwarzenegger lift weights, you won’t get bigger muscles. You’ll be amazed at all the time you’ll save and the positive impact it will have on your team and business.