Email was among the first waves of IT innovations that revolutionized the speed, delivery and volume of written communication. Even though many have predicted its demise, email is still with us and continues to be invaluable -- but, it also can cause countless headaches.
At work, it's hard to concentrate on the task at hand with the constant pinging or dinging of incoming emails. While many complain about the number of time-wasting messages, protesting seems futile: It's part of the job -- I've got to deal with it! That's certainly true in jobs and industries that are extremely time-sensitive like breaking news journalism, emergency response or international financial markets.
During off hours, we have trouble recharging and being fully present with our loved ones because intrusive work and private messages follow us wherever we go. Again, for some people rapid email response is part of their job description or required by personal circumstances and little can be done to change that.
However, not everybody needs to monitor their email 24/7 and fire up the keypad at a moment's notice. Given the scientific and anecdotal evidence that email overload is not only bad for employees but also bad for business, there have been very interesting suggestions and efforts on both the individual and the institutional level. Here are my favourites:
1. Move to France. The country of joie de vivre is concerned that work emails after hours are detrimental to employee health and long-term productivity. So, parliament is currently discussing a law that would restrict off-hour email traffic.
Some German car manufacturers have also instituted ways of managing the curse of 24/7 emails. Daimler, for example, has a policy of deleting workers' emails while they are on holiday. The sender gets a friendly request to resend the message post-vacation, or, in case of an emergency, to contact specific personnel.
2. No email Fridays. Many companies are trying to stem the flood of distracting emails by introducing policies that make certain times or days email free. Instead of deleting irrelevant emails and filing marginal missives, employees can focus on deeper and more creative thinking and on getting things done.
There is even a movement #NoEmailDay that started on 11/11/11. Its proponents advocate drastically reducing the use of email in general and many go as far as to suggest moving all written communication to social media instead. You can join the NoEmailers this year on 6/6/16 and celebrate your very own No Email Day.
3. Manage expectations. As a supervisor you can lead by example. Communicate your preferences for more efficient and less invasive emailing. Reinforce your policies with positive mentions of people who follow them. You might even want to have a private word with anybody who consistently ignores your email etiquette.
When there are no formal company or departmental guidelines, decide on your own email preferences and talk to your colleagues about them. Starting a conversation about how to maximize the usefulness of email could lead to surprising improvements.
4. Turn off email notification on all devices and decide on specific check-in times. Unless standing by is part of your job description or you are waiting for an urgent email, there is really no need to get reminded that your inbox just grew fuller -- again. Those visual and auditory cues are extremely distracting. Like any focus switch, you lose concentration and irrelevant thoughts can disrupt your flow.
Instead, dedicate specific times to email checking and writing. What are your high-volume times? What are your high-importance periods? When are you most effective in checking and/or answering emails?
You might decide to check on the half hour or only twice a day. It all depends on your job description and your preferences. Devise a similar flow for private emails. Then communicate your preferences to those who matter.
5. Schedule work modules on your calendar and mark them busy. Working with modules has been very helpful to my clients. By blocking 30-60 minute blocks of time for clearly defined tasks, they are able to focus their energies and their minds without losing flexibility.
For example, if you are working on a large project such as a book, you might want to schedule 60 minutes a day four times a week. Then drop them into your calendar wherever it best suits you. Repeat with other tasks and responsibilities to get a realistic sense of what you can achieve in a day.
If you share your calendar, those blocked productivity times signal to others that you are not available. It also provides a reasonable explanation for why your response time was more than 30 seconds.
Some of these techniques work equally well for other distractions like social media. What are your favourite methods of managing email overload?
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