I find myself spending more and more time discussing email with clients – and it’s rarely a positive conversation.
Many clients report a lot of stress and frustration associated with workplace email, describing themselves as feeling “swamped” or “unable to keep up”.
In my experience, feeling the need to keep on top of email correspondence at work is a major anxiety-inducing belief. A very unhelpful belief.
Much of the thinking about email could be described as “faulty thinking” – what psychologists refer to as “cognitive distortions”. Misinterpreting the intended message in an email or feeling compunction to respond when it’s not explicitly immediately required are examples of this.
I often challenge clients with the question: where on your job description does it say “must respond to all emails received”. I’ve yet to meet someone who has “do email” as a key component of their role!
But it seems to take up more and more time in employees’ working days – and frequently their private evenings and weekends to. I’ve previously discussed the double-edged sword of modern communications technology (e.g. email on your smart phone), so I won’t revisit that.
Instead, I’ll share a suggestion that I make to coaching clients on a regular basis.
Leave your email closed.
Shocking, I know! At least first thing in the morning. Instead of opening up your email application and feeling overwhelmed by what has arrived in your inbox while you were sleeping, take time to consider what you want to get done today.
Most people react with horror at this suggestion. It’s definitely a difficult habit to change partly rooted in misguided views of how others will interpret any change to our email behaviour.
However…imagine how much ore focused you could be if you spent the first hour of your working day clarifying what must be done and getting some of those key tasks off your to-do list.
In a sense, checking your email before your own task list says “everybody else’s priorities are more important than my own”.
I encourage people to experiment with this and gradually change their email habits to avoid a negative backlash from colleagues. Just a few minutes spent on clarifying priorities and key tasks can bring a sense of focus.
This is an interesting little article about changing your email habits. It recommends several behaviours I fully agree with, including:
- Do your most important work before you open your email
- Schedule time to check your email, rather than constant checking
- Process emails in a few sittings, batching this work
- Train others to manage expectations regarding email
The last point is an interesting one. Many employees reflect on the unintended consequences of speedy email responses: more email in return! Colleagues are more likely to email someone they think will respond quickly to their queries.
Slowly reducing how quickly you respond to non-urgent emails can “train” others to reduce the numbers of emails they send your way. You can also encourage more communication via telephone and in person, where you can schedule these interactions.
The bottom line here is that email is a tool. Used effectively, it can be a powerful time-saver. If we allow it to control our behaviour, it’s at best a distraction, at worst an anxiety-inducing monster on your laptop.