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I have a love hate relationship with email.

Email is easy to send and doesn’t require you to find a common time to talk to someone.  It is an easy way to ask for something “without bothering people”.  They can respond at their own convenience.  The same is true for texting and instant messages.  

All these electronic ways of communication are extremely convenient and improve our productivity.

But do they?  

They certainly increase the speed we can communicate, but so many of us get overwhelmed by the quantity. 

Even though they are just blinking pixels on a screen, emails have created habits of overworking.  

Of course you know all about this.

How often do you have a conversation at work about too much email while being interrupted by chat messages and at the same time you a hear a mobile phone buzz and ding?

Lots.  Yup.  Me too. 

So let’s talk about how you can stop letting these tools be your reason to overwork.  

There are two things about electronic communications that trap us into overworking.  Luckily the solution to both of the problems is the same.

But let’s review the problems first.

  1. We put it off, and it goes on a list.
  2. We are always on and always checking

Reply quick or put it off

The way I managed my email early in my career is what I like to call the “Reply quick or put it off” method.  If I got an email I would take care of the easy ones and put off the harder ones. I would tell myself “I don’t know what to do with this one”, and flag it for follow-up.  Of course I ended up with a big long list of flagged emails in a folder called “follow-up”. 

My mind knew that folder was full of items I wasn’t sure how to respond to, so I would regularly tell myself I didn’t have time to review them.  I will do that later.   That folder of flagged items would weigh on my mind as something I had to take care of.  I would worry about them; Peek at them; Prioritize them and re-prioritize them; Review the same message again;  Look at them; Jump from one, to the next, to the next, and still tell myself I don’t know how to respond yet. Meanwhile I would keep getting new emails and flagging the hard ones.  The list kept on growing.

I felt anxiety and stress.  I lost sleep over a folder of flagged emails.  I would think about them all weekend.  Eventually I would spend my nights and weekend focusing on them and finally do the research I needed to do to respond.  It always felt so good to “finally get through my emails”.  

And then they would start to build up again.

The “reply quick or put it off” method kept me busy working all the time.  I was working hard at worrying about a folder, trying to prioritize the work in a folder, or finally surging and processing the folder.  The work of worrying and prioritizing didn’t help me produce many results but they sure took time and energy.

It kept me overworking and under producing.  Lots of mental effort (worrying and prioritizing) for little result.  I am not alone in this problem.  It is extremely common.

Always on and always checking

The second problem of email for me was that with my smartphone, email and chat were available to us to check at any time of the day, and everywhere I went.  For 20 years, I’ve had my work email in my pocket at all times, and on my bedside table at night.

I got overwhelmed by messages, even though they are just blinking pixels on a screen.   And then, as I shared above, I worked at night or on weekends to “catch up”.

While I was catching up, I was sending replies to emails.  Other colleagues are often catching up too so I would get new messages from them after hours and on weekends. Getting and answering an email makes us think we have accomplished something and it gives us satisfaction. 

Studies have shown that getting and replying to messages (email, text, or social media) causes a release of dopamine in our brains.  Dopamine is our pleasure chemical and causes us to think “I want more of that”.   

So the more we work on email the more our brains want to check email.  And the more we send email, the more our colleagues will send replies.  Everyone is getting their email dopamine. So we end up checking email first thing in the morning, and after hours, and on the weekends.  We literally get addicted to checking email.

The result of these two problems was not good for me

For me, the result of these two problems was that I was checking email hundreds of times a day where I would process the easy ones (dopamine) and flag and file the hard ones.  I would build up my “follow-up folder of stress”, and then use up all my downtime either worrying about the email or working on them to clear them out.  Then I would check the inbox again and keep the cycle going.

I am confident I am not alone in this.  I hear it from you all the time.

So what’s the solution? It’s Scheduling. 

Scheduling and planning ahead solves both problems, it’s simpler than you think, and most of us resist doing it.

  1. Restrict your email checking time to the work day.  Make a rule for yourself that you will not check email outside of your regular working hours and stick to it.  Try it for 1 week and then check in with yourself on how you are feeling.
  2. Schedule small blocks of time just for processing email during your working day.  For me, three 20 minute blocks is usually enough.
  3. Schedule the “hard ones” on your calendar. For the emails requiring brainstorming or research, decide how long you will spend on the work, and do not put it on a list or in a folder. Instead, schedule the day and time you will take care of it.  Put it on your calendar all by itself so that it can’t get blended in and lost amongst other work so it need to be reviewed and prioritized again.

That’s it.  Scheduling in this way will significantly reduce your email overwhelm.  

  1. You will free up a LOT of time.  All that sorting, Considering, re-planning, putting things off, looking at emails again and again, talking about email overwhelm, getting stressed about blinking pixels… it takes time.  It all feels like work but delivers no results. It is a lot more time than you think.
  2. When you stop sending email off hours, you will receive less email during those times as well.  I promise.  This will help everyone.
  3. You will know exactly when you will get to the messages that require more time.  Having them in your calendar will help you prioritize all of your work.  You will have a complete picture of everything that will require your time and you will know when it will get done.  That erases the worry and prioritizing you were doing.  No more follow-up folder.

So when you wake up in the morning, do not check your email. Take the time for a relaxed start to your day.  Have a nice breakfast and some coffee or tea.  Enjoy your morning each day.  Don’t waste it with email.  Look at your email during your scheduled “email time”.  Doing so will multiply your time available for work and multiply your time available for play.  It will help you stop overworking.

Give yourself this gift.

Today I want you to make a rule that you will stop overworking because of email 

Seriously. For so many of you these blinking pixels are tricking your brain into overworking, and the mental effort you are giving it is not giving you an equal return in results produced.  You might as well allow yourself some downtime.

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