Last week, my email crashed, and I spent 7 hours on the phone with lovely Yna from the Philippines as she shut down my email, rebuilt it and transferred everything over. As Yna and I chatted, I kept my eye on my smart phone: 10 emails, 22 emails, 29 emails, 44 emails, and on and on. And a little feeling of panic began to well up inside me. When am I ever going to get these emails answered, I kept thinking. If we tend to our email all day long then we don’t necessarily notice how many emails we process, reply to, send each day. But when I finally got back into my email that night, I saw just how much email can pile up and was reminded that while I do take some measures to control my inbox so that I am able to maintain focus on the work that I am most meant to be doing in this world and not get overburdened by distractions, my inbox control measures could use a little extra attention.
So, this week’s spark is all about becoming the boss of our email. Here are five steps that I take to wrangle my inbox or my attitude and sense of peace around my inbox, and I would love to hear your strategies, too.
1. Manage what comes in. A couple months ago, I went on a fierce unsubscribe tear which has reduced what comes in– a lovely thing. In addition, I created a Do/Watch/Read file to put the things that I am really interested in reading in detail (newsletters I am subscribed to and the articles and videos people send me) when I am not overwhelmed. My weekly goal is to go Do/Watch/Read 1-2 items out of that file a week. Finally, I managed some of my social media accounts so I wouldn’t, for example, get an email every time someone spoke to me on Twitter since I can see that on my Twitter account (note to self: I need to do this for Pinterest, too, so I don’t get an email for every repin).
2. Pick up the phone. Sometimes, one email is not going to take care of the entire situation at hand, but one phone call could. Opt for the phone call when it is the more efficient, effective option.
3. Reign in the group email. Need to schedule a group meeting? Opt for Doodle when you have a lot of dates, a lot of people (or both) or use BCC so folks just respond directly to you so you can gather the dates, for example, and then get back to everyone on a final option. When you are on the receiving end of group emails, read everything that is in inbox before responding and then try to just send a response from one email.
4. Put some parameters in place. I taught high school during the age of beepers. My leadership students once told me that they needed me to get a beeper so that way, they could reach me if they needed me on the weekend. My response? “First, of all, I am not that essential. There is nobody who needs me THAT much that I need to be reachable at all times. And if I haven’t taught you what you needed to know about life before getting yourself into that situation, I am certainly not going to be able to teach you a darn thing while you are in the midst of it.” Now, we are in the era of smart phones and people think we should all be ALWAYS reachable. Except I don’t really want to be always reachable and maybe you don’t want to be either. Here are some ways to be less reachable…
A. Set your email hours. In your email signature, set your hours. Tell folks when you check and answer email. This will take some pressure off yourself to always answer quickly. At the beginning of each semester, I tell my students that I check email from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. If they need me, email me during business hours and I’ll answer. If they have a paper due on Friday and have a question, they know they need to email me by 4:45 pm on Thursday to get an answer from me. My students do not even blink when I tell them this and I think I model a good work/life balance with this parameter. In addition to communicating that parameter to students, I very rarely do email from Friday afternoon to Sunday night. Unless it is time sensitive to those few days, it sits in my inbox and I try to do a quick email clean out on Sunday night to prepare for the new week.
B. Control what is on your smart phone. The way that I keep myself honest about not answering my students’ emails at all hours is that I do not have my university email account on my smart phone. I have no idea what is in my inbox until I log onto the university site from my computer. Automatic control measure right there. If it is your phone and you are paying for it and you aren’t saving the world or humanity IMMEDIATELY via email, don’t feel like your work email has to be on your phone. Granted, I do a lot of my work via my personal email account but having at least one work email account not on my phone does help.
5. Back away from the email. When I really need to focus on a project (like writing a book proposal or putting together a new workshop), I put an out of office message on my email and refocus my energy and attention elsewhere. I know that at any time I can choose to pay less attention to email but officially putting up the out of office helps me really shift my energy into whatever I am working on.
I know some people only answer email at set times during a day, and I am sure there are many other strategies for bossing your email. What are yours?