Feeling behind? Don’t do email first

Email is a magnificent tool. I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t universal. I learned to report by — this might seem crazy — calling people. Even the first time you wanted to speak to the person! You had to pick up the phone, call, and explain what you wanted. We might wax nostalgic about the interpersonal skills this taught, but I know the tendency was to call people who were willing to be called, because I’d called them and been through their various gatekeepers before.

Email opened all of this up.

It also creates time stress. People have different ideas of what is a reasonable time frame in which to return an email, but there’s good evidence that the window in which the majority of people would expect a reply is shrinking. And why not? The person emailing you knows as well as you do that you have your phone — with its little inbox icon — on you at all times. Outside of a few situations, if you haven’t responded, it’s because you’re choosing to do other things rather than respond.

To which I say: Yes! Excessive inbox counts just provide more evidence that we are always disappointing someone. Maybe at one point this wasn’t so obvious. But now it is.

Or as Juliet says in Juliet’s School of Possibilities: Expectations are infinite. Time is finite. You are always choosing. Choose well. 

Maybe this constant disappointment sounds bleak, but it can also be liberating. Time, at least for those whose lives involve a lot of email, as opposed to walking 10 miles daily to fetch dirty well water, is mostly a choice. If we’re always disappointing someone, we want to make sure we’re making wise choices about who we disappoint. I’d argue that making someone who’d like a reply, but doesn’t urgently need one, wait 24 (or 48, or 72) hours is often a better choice than crowding out space for the work (including unpaid work) that brings joy and meaning to your life.

I’d argue this. I also know it’s hard to do in practice. Thanks to how I’ve organized my various incoming stuff, I now have four inboxes (kind of a long story, and yes, it’s me looking at them — I’ve gotten some funny emails starting “Hey guys, could you please pass this along to Laura?” Um, this isn’t that big an operation!) I have also, at various points in the last month of launching a book, a podcast, and continuing my speech-giving, article-writing life that involves four kids, felt like my to-do list is robust.

Every day, I’m tempted to clear out the inboxes first. Why? It’s straightforward. Delete the stuff I don’t need. Forward other stuff. Many things require quick answers. Some require longer ones, but it’s often interesting to engage with people. Very complicated responses can be scheduled for another time, but then at least I know there is a time. I make progress quickly. Who knows if I’ve achieved my big goals, but I’ve definitely gotten down from 100 unread messages to 50! If people have bothered to write me, often nice things, it’s emotionally satisfying to respond. I like to get that satisfaction sooner rather than later.

But…I also know that email expands to fill the available space. Email will always be with me. The question is whether I will ever do anything else. Whether I devote my morning to high value work or not, I’ll still be behind on email. So better to be behind and do the work, than be behind and not do the work. Choose well.

So this morning, I started answering a few things, then realized I needed to stop and write an article I had been putting off. I finished a draft. This afternoon I will go through the inboxes. If I’d spent the morning in my inbox, I wouldn’t have a draft. And that would make me feel even more behind.

Photo: These flowers are prettier than my inbox(es)

12 thoughts on “Feeling behind? Don’t do email first

  1. I’m not sure how or why it’s different (especially since I work in a 24/7/365 manufacturing environment) but our email culture is understood that email will be dealt with the next time I am in the office but I will answer and respond immediately to any phone calls. I’ve never felt pressure to check email when not at work, knowing if something critical comes up (ie process is stopped and losing tens of thousands of dollars every minute), I will be called and will deal with it then.

    I also found it interesting that Gretchen Rubin delays all the emails she sends over the weekend to be sent out Monday morning. Though she did not require an answer, she felt found she was creating an expectation by those receiving it. A possible tip for anyone who doesn’t want to contribute to the “respond immediately” idea!

    1. I also found out recently that feature into my mailbox and heard Gretchen Rubin using it. I think it is a good idea and I will try it out. At least with those people I know would be tempted to answer right away… 🙂

  2. Our academic department is working to shift email culture – mostly by sending out email reminders…

    We’re now not supposed to send emails between 7pm and 7am but I think in many ways, this fails to acknowledge how people manage flexible work patterns. I head home early to collect my son and will often do emails (which is a low energy task) in the evening. When I was still nursing, I’d be able to clean out my inbox in one session. I’d rather be sitting on my couch doing email after bedtime than in my office while my son is awake. I just need to sort the tech out so I can queue everything to send at 8am.

    1. Yeah, if they want to make it a culture shift, maybe just start off with the expectation that emails won’t be necessarily READ or DEALT WITH after hours, and if there is a true emergency, choose another method of communication…it seems silly to restrain people’s work patterns. If an email is sent at 11pm, I’m asleep. I’ll deal with it in the morning or whenever, but it does not bother me.

  3. Very good point! I have been inspired to rethink my time management of emails after reading your books! 🙂

    The problem with e-mails (as with many technologies) is when we become slaves rather than masters of something. E-mails are a tool for communication, just like instant messaging, text, phone calls or talk! Choose the right tool for the right purpose! It does not make sense to send an email to a coworker who is sitting down the corridor to ask if she is ready to go for lunch. Talk to her or send an IM. But to reach out to a colleague overseas who is often travelling and in meetings, emails are a pretty useful tool for me to ask them questions about a project. If people were most thoughtful about whether emails is the right way of communicating to a person, inboxes would be less overloaded. And I always tell people to call me, not email, if there is something urgent.

    To manage my emails, I went for the “batching” approch and now check my inboxes three times a day: when I get in the office in the morning (my brain needs a bit a warm up to be ready for deep work!), just before or after lunch and an hour before I plan to leave the office. I always follow the same process: I sort out what can be read later (moved in folders), what can be responded immediately (and I do so tight away) and what requires more elaborated responses (flagged as a to-do item). In between those slots, my inbox is open (I don’t close because I sometimes need to go back find an information or document that is in an email) but notifications are tuned off and I manage pretty well to not ignore the incoming messages as I use it. That new organisation really helped me be in control of my emails (and I am an inbox zero person, so that number of unread mails can’t be so high!).

    1. I really like your thought process on the 3 times I day. I am hoping to shift my work day to doing more of that. I hope that it will help me focus on what is my top priorities of the day without distractions.

  4. I prefer email over phone calls because phone calls are really intrusive interruptions. I can wisely allocate time slots when I check my email and then I can easily achieve “Inbox Zero”. Its not about answering any mail, I just delete the useless stuff, and if some mail requires more than a quick response I create a task out of it that in my GTD system, so I’m quite sure the task does not get forgotten and I will handle it in a reasonable time.
    The important mindset is to realize, that by checking your inbox you look at “other people’s priorities” and not at yours. So don’t check email first thing in the morning but “eat your” frog first. 😉

  5. Hi Laura – thanks for the post! I have a reverse question: Do you ever have the problem that you get “too good” at postponing email? I have found that, when I am successful at writing first, I often don’t want to deal with email later (the more involved but typically more important requests). I end up procrastinating on them instead of procrastinating on the writing. Maybe still better than not getting my deeper thinking etc done, but not good. I have screwed up professional situations, and failed to take advantage of opportunities because of that. The temptation to just do a little more research and writing done when I should finally get to emails is too tempting — even though I am totally in the camp of being tempted to check email non-stop as avoidance strategy. Any thoughts? Telling myself “you just have to commit to it; this is important too” does not seem to do the trick 🙁 Thanks a lot in advance.

    1. @Ulrike- I have definitely put email off for a while, but sometimes it could be done as a break from writing, or during a meal (sometimes I’ll do email during lunch). I think there’s also a difference between emails offering a major opportunity, and just the hum drum stuff. I do answer the ones I’m excited about within a reasonable time frame!

  6. Lots of good ideas! I’ve always checked my email 3 times a day and ignored them after working hours. I like the idea of scheduling a batch to send early the next workday. That’s a new one to me.

    Also, I like the picture of the forsythia. Mine isn’t blooming well this year. The bus must have gotten nipped a week or two ago.

  7. This is great advice! I told all my direct reports that I have a 2 day turnaround on emails and that if I don’t respond within 2 days, I’ve probably missed the email and they should follow up in person. Also, if they need something faster, they should ask me in person or by text. This REALLY helped. Setting a time frame expectation is less effective, but still partially helpful, with cross departmental requests (I still politely explain that I respond to emails within two days and if it takes longer than that, I may have missed them.)

    A lot of my work behaviors come from Laura and similar bloggers, so I’m not claiming this is my original idea, but I can’t remember where I got this originally 🙂

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