How to handle email: Stay Conscious

I write for Time Management for iPad Magazine, an authority on Time Management. This article was originally posted in the November 2013 issue.

Email, thaTime Management Magazine - November 2013embert world-dominating missing link between the age of the typewriter and the age of the cloud, is still a central component of the modern workday and sadly, one of its greatest vandals. It was devised and marketed as a marvellous tool for speedy communication – and indeed it is, once the Send button has been clicked; the speediness is due to the physical structure of the network, but that does not make it a speedy tool while it is sitting on the computer screen.

In fact email has done the opposite; it has clogged people’s days with endless interruption, compounded by unnecessary CC’ing, BCC’ing and attaching of documents. People who look with bemused nostalgia at the dot-matrix printer or IBM Selectric typewriter lurking in a darkened storage closet somewhere might be surprised to find they will be doing the same for email in a few short years.

The problem with email comes from its false sense of urgency, which itself it triggered by the innate human fear of the unknown. Although the two concepts might seem unconnected at first, human beings are instinctively aware of the need to address an unknown such as a moving shadow or a darkened room, in case they present a danger. Although most emails are not really sinister, the same reflex kicks in, and in so doing, actually redirects all of the oxygen and nutrients that the thinking brain needs for thinking, and sends it to the urgency centre of the brain in case a danger truly is present. This happens every single time an email arrives into an in-box. To compound the problem, even though it takes mere milliseconds for the brain to shift its fuel in this way, it takes five or more minutes to move it back, after the “urgency” has subsided. Therefore every person who has an email system on their desk spends much of the day working at sub-par thinking capacity, basically due to the reallocation of mental fuel in this fashion.

If email has to be used, it should ideally be used in block form, not ad hoc. This makes all the difference. Responding to a stimulus just because it is there is reactive, and the detrimental results are described in the paragraph above. However, choosing to respond to email on your own terms is the opposite; it’s proactive, and it allows the user to undertake the action consciously and by choice. This is very different and results in far more consistent levels of focus, concentration and stamina, because no urgent reaction is present, but instead, a genuine sense of control is.

Block form responding means assigning times in the day to respond, for example, 10:00 to 10:30 and 1:00-1:30, and so on, rather than immediately when the messages come in. Sure, there are some emails that may supersede this rule, like the ones from the boss, but most people can live with a delay of an hour or so before receiving a response, and even if they cannot, it is easy to educate people and manage their expectations by reassuring them that their emails will be responded to reasonably promptly.

Depending on a person’s job and workload, it may not be possible to do this block response technique all day, but it is highly effective during those periods where true concentration is required. It may be possible, for example, to perform a focused task from 9:00 to 10:00 and then stop to check and respond to emails upon its completion at 10:00.

This block response technique has an additional benefit, which comes from a concept found within Parkinsons’s law. This law of action states that “work expands to fill the time available,” and indeed email is a chief swallower of such time, since it generally operates without a fixed schedule. Email for most people, simply takes as long as it takes to complete. However, when people put themselves inside a box of perhaps 30 minutes to reply to 10 emails, this changes the approach to writing, allowing for shorter, clearer responses.

And what of those people we fear – the ones who send a follow-up email just five minutes after their first one, wondering where the reply is? These people need to be conditioned – trained to understand that they will indeed receive attention in due course. Such a reminder might be sent to them as part of your autoresponder message, or in your signature, or perhaps it need simply be inserted into the body of an email. Most people can live by a reasonable set of rules, if those rules are actually, proactively made clear.

In a few years email will be replaced, in large part, by the cloud-based collaborative workspace in which messages unfold in a singular fashion, much like the comment stream on FaceBook. Documents, too, will live in a commonly accessible secure cloud-based folder, where edits can happen in real time and the need for both CC’s and attachments is largely eliminated. Many organizations already work this way, so far from being speculative, the workplace with the vastly-reduced email queue is already here. It just takes time for such improvements to spread across a community.

In short, the benefits gained from using collaborative environments, and the downsides to using email revolve around one singular and ancient tool, the human nervous system. So long as stimuli continue to take people by “surprise,” productivity will always remain suppressed. Collaborative environments will not solve all problems, of course, but any time a human can move from reactive to proactive, productivity and full mental capacity follow.


Time Management Magazine for iPad


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