Love it or hate it, email is now an essential part of our working day. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for productivity or even for our health. Recently, researchers at the University of California, Irving conducted a workplace study in which some subjects were cut off from email, while their colleagues remained connected. The subjects wore heart rate monitors and also had software sensors connected to their computers.
Email free days
They found that those with email changed between windows on their computer twice as often as those without and were distracted by their inbox. They also had a ‘high alert’ heart rate all the time, while those without had a more natural heart rate. Gloria Marks the co-author of the study said that some participants ‘loved’ being without email and were happy to interact with their colleagues in person instead of by email.
Meanwhile, Graham Allcott the author of How to be a Productivity Ninja says: “Most people tend to pile things up in their inbox, and their list of unread emails will run onto more than one page. This can make you feel out of control, because you can’t see everything in front of you.”
Four steps to a healthier inbox relationship
Happily, there are steps you can take to break this pattern and build a healthier relationship with your inbox. It requires some time upfront, but the payback will time saved and productivity increased.
The approach you take to decluttering your inbox will depend on what state it’s in – 100 unread emails will take far less time to sort out than 10,000. If your email backlog runs into thousands, email bankruptcy might be an option. Email bankruptcy means deleting or ‘marking as read’ all your emails and asking people with an outstanding query to email it to you again.
Both David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero suggest that rather than using your inbox as a to-do list or file storage system, you should use it as an arrival point for emails, and then deal with them elsewhere, for example files or folders for things you need to action, things you need to reply to etc.
You can also reduce your email burden by setting up rules to send certain emails to folders. For example: emails you know you don’t need to respond to can skip the inbox altogether, as could things like social media updates; email from a person that you know you need to respond to quickly can go to a priority inbox.
You could also think of ways to reduce your incoming email as you go through the process of decluttering and organising. Are there emails you can unsubscribe from? Are certain people sending multiple emails a day that you could ask to be combined into one daily email? Are there discussions going on over email that would be better suited to a phone call?
The final step to break is the habit of checking your email repeatedly throughout the day. Email is an important communication tool, but constant checking makes it hard to get into the ‘flow’ state where you get your best done. Try scheduling a set time or times each day, when you can really dedicate yourself to dealing with all your emails.
Put these tips into practice and it won’t be long before your working life feels a whole lot easier and more productive. Or why not try the two email exercises in our Design Your Day resource pack?