It’s easy to feel swamped, but how do you decide what to keep and what takes priority? And should you be checking out of hours?
Keep your inbox at zero
This is not impossible, according to Graham Allcott, the author of How to Be a Productivity Ninja, who runs workshops on keeping your inbox empty. “Get really comfortable with the delete button,” he says, “and set your recycling bin not to empty regularly, so that if you accidentally delete things, you can retrieve them easily.” The goal should be managing your attention, not your emails, he says, “therefore a key part of an ‘inbox zero’ system is to do whatever it takes to get your attention on to the most important and fulfilling stuff. If that means a few smaller things go awry once in a while, so be it. Your job isn’t to do email well, it’s to use email to do your work well.”
Don’t start your day with email
“Email is not your to-do list,” says Allcott. If you begin your working hours by checking your inbox, you’re more likely to be its slave for the day. Allcott recommends first doing some “quality thinking” about the day’s priorities, and plan the day around those things before diving into emails.
Set efficient email etiquette
Does everyone have to be copied in all the time? Do we need to reply-all? Allcott recommends a 15-minute team meeting to agree terms. Lina Siegl, project coordinator at the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, is researching the effects of email culture for her PhD at the University of Manchester and has found that needlessly replying to all “is a particular source of frustration”. Say at the outset: “It’s OK not to say thank you or OK.” “People might not feel that pressure to reply unnecessarily,” she says.
Avoid work email out of hours
“Research is showing that expectations to stay connected to work are probably one of the biggest stressors,” says Siegl. If you can, she suggests keeping a separate work phone, “so you don’t get your work emails directly on your private phone, making it easier to disconnect”. A frank chat with your manager about whether they want you to be on email when not at work can help, but the onus is on bosses to set healthy email practices for their teams. If you are working flexible hours, include these in your email signature so that others know when to expect you to get to their message. And whatever you do, she says, “don’t check your emails in bed”.
Use other means of communication
A common complaint Siegl hears is that people are weary of “staring at the computer all day and dealing with emails, often answering really simple questions that could be addressed through a quick phone call, or by walking across the office”. Communicating more directly would not only reduce email traffic, she says, “but could encourage more social bonds and stop people hiding behind their screens”.