Stop doing email

One of my interests/challenges/obsessions at work is personal productivity. How can you get everything you need to do done and still get home at a reasonable hour? Can you get a work/home balance that doesn’t require regular sacrifices -- on either side? And what’s the secret to defeating Parkinson’s Law?

With these ongoing questions at the back of my mind, I was struck when I came across a series of articles by a colleague, Dave Wascha, that outlined practical steps to master your workload and maximise your effectiveness – without turning you into a jobsworth. Over to Dave…

Stop doing email

Every time I hear someone talk about how much email they got through yesterday, or how many emails they have in their inbox it drives me absolutely crazy. How many times a day do you hear others talk about how much email they do? How often do you talk about how much you do? We don’t pay people to do email; we pay people to drive business impact. One of the most common patterns I’ve observed in my time working is that people too often confuse the two. People confuse activity with driving business impact.

There are two common activities that we often confuse with impact: doing mail, and going to meetings.

Email is not progress

One pitfall I’ve fallen into and witnessed again and again with others is when we aren’t clear on our goals or how we add value, when we’re not feeling empowered or motivated, or when we simply don’t know what to do next, then email is something tangible we can do to delude ourselves that we’re making progress. It’s very alluring. You can (and probably do)  spend hours processing hundreds of emails, deleting, filing, responding, watching your inbox shrink, reacting to new mails coming in etc. and when you’re done you can say, “Wow, I got through 800 mails!” It feels like you’ve accomplished something.

But even if we’re focused and clear about our objectives, we are haunted by our inboxes. We open up the inbox in the morning, see that we already have 40 new emails and it’s only 7:30am and we look at our calendars and see that we have meetings all day and there’s no way we’re going to get through it all and we feel overwhelmed by it. As good conscientious employees we feel compelled to read and respond to every single email we get. We must let go of this notion.  Doing mail can be largely a waste of time. I know because I stopped doing mail six years ago. Well…mostly.

In 2003 I found myself spending more and more time doing mail and yet as hard as I tried I was never able to keep up. Inevitably I’d have to work on two or three Saturdays a month and spend the day “catching up on mail” and cleaning out my inbox. I found this unwinnable battle very demoralizing. I got around 12,000 emails in 2003. If you assume an average of 2 minutes (which is probably low) reading and/or responding to all 12,000 of these mails it roughly equates to spending 9-10 hours a week doing mail. I was spending all this time doing mail and yet I was getting further behind in what I was actually supposed to be doing against my objectives. I felt caught in this ever increasing loop of mail, mail and more mail and it wasn’t helping me actually get my job done.

The black list

On one of those Saturdays as I was sitting at my desk catching up on mail I decided to conduct an experiment. I set out to discover just how little mail I could read and respond to and still achieve my objectives and drive the business forward. I started by deciding that I wouldn’t read any mail from certain people who tended to send me a lot of mail that wasn’t relevant to my job, or my objectives. I made a list of those people and built rules in Outlook to delete mail from them automatically (I maintain such a list today). People are always shocked when I tell them I do this. This reduced my incoming mail rate by about 5-10%. I was encouraged. I was buying back time through deleting irrelevant mail without reading it.  I then took a pretty big leap and stole a rule from a colleague which was to delete all mails where I was on the CC line without reading them. This one made me nervous because I thought surely I was going to miss out on lots of important information and be out of the loop on crucial goings on. My incoming mail rate immediately dropped by another 40%. When I tell people this they immediately ask, “How long did that last before things started to get dropped?” But interestingly enough little if anything got dropped. Most people are terrible about how much thought they put into who goes on the CC line.  In fact they tend to err on the side of sending mail more broadly than necessary. If the only exposure you have to some idea or piece of information is through being copied on a mail about it, how crucial can it really be to doing your job? Anyway, through these two simple steps I reduced my incoming mail rate by half and it was having no negative impact on my ability to do my job. In fact was spending less time on mail, hours less,  and I was increasing the time I had to spend on driving the business forward.

I started to get addicted to deleting mail. Through trial and error I continued to build rules in Outlook to whittle and pair and trim mail that wasn’t directly relevant to me driving business impact. Anything that wasn’t directly relevant to the daily execution of my job got deleted or moved to a folder before I read it. 

It’s good to talk

I continued to scan and analyze my inbox for patterns or trends that would allow me to cut even more. I began to notice that a significant portion of the mail in my inbox at that point were responses to mails that I’d sent other people. Furthermore I also noticed that the more people I put on the TO: line and the CC: line the more responses I got back. This of course seems obvious, but it led me to experiment with further refinements to my system. I made a list of the people I most often sent mail to. For six years I’ve made this list in every role I’ve had and it has always been the case that I send the bulk of my mail to 5 or 6 people. I then made sure that I have frequent, short meetings with those people, and I started to choose the phone as the primary communications channel in the absence of an in-person meeting.  One 3 minute phone call or ten minute meeting often saved a thread of dozens of back and forth emails and hours spent conversing in mail. So, in addition to cutting back on the amount of mail I received, I also started to cut back on the amount of mail I sent. I sent fewer mails and I sent them to fewer people.

When you go through this refinement process you’re left with a handful of mails from the 5-7 most crucial people for you to be in touch with on the 3-4 things that are most important to your job. In fact, those 3-4 things should map directly to your objectives. If they don’t your system is flawed.

In all but a few circumstances email is not the best way to communicate with people. Additionally I believe most of the email we get is not directly relevant to doing our jobs. Email is a tool to get a job done and yet for many of us it has become our job. I got over twenty thousand emails last year and I deleted nearly 70% of them without reading them. Of those I did read I responded to fewer than half. If you spend a ridiculous amount of time doing email you are likely doing it at the expense of driving business impact and your own work/life balance. I’m ruthless about deleting mail and I don’t apologize for it. Only very, very rarely do I actually miss something that was pretty important.

Don’t confuse reading or writing email with driving business impact. I don’t get paid to do mail and neither do you.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Don’t confuse activity like doing email with making progress on driving the business forward
  2. Most of the email you get is not crucial to doing your job
  3. Create a system for identifying irrelevant (or less relevant) mail and delete as much as possible without reading it
  4. Send less mail and send it to fewer people
  5. Choose the phone, instant messenger or short, in-person meetings instead of email whenever possible
  6. Use the time you save doing steps 1-5 to make focused progress on driving the business forward
Comments (2)
  1. rayalllen says:

    A agree with you totally, except when you say instant messaging. I think instant messaging and texting should both be avoided like the plague.  All these methods are very impersonal and sometime very time consuming. I find sometime a quick call gets me a lot farther than a simple text message or email.

  2. GillLeFevre says:

    Rayallen: good point about calls being the most effective way of making progress, especially if you’ve not worked closely with someone before. Where IM comes into it’s own is if you need a quick reply from someone you know well but don’t want to interupt their work with a call.

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