Kill Your Electronic Mail

E-mail has really changed the face of work in the past generation. Time was that to talk to anyone about work you had to pick up a phone and chat with them or drive over to them and chat face to face. There are numerous advantages to handling business this way. You get a sense of who you’re working with, you can ensure your ideas are communicated properly, you get an instant response.

But for sheer work volume, it’s pretty hard to beat e-mail. It saves on the paper that endless memos require, and it allows you to communicate very cheaply and very quickly with people anywhere in the world. The impact e-mail has on productivity is low as well. The receiver can take this e-mail whenever they see fit and deal with the issue when it suits their schedule the best.

Oh. Did I say the impact e-mail has on productivity is low? Maybe in a lab environment.

Out in the field, e-mail is decimating the workforce. In some areas, e-mail has virtually (pun!) taken the place of all other forms of communication. Instead of e-mail being a waiting ticket that should be dealt with as time allows, it’s dealt with instantly. It pops into your inbox and a little notification dings and you click and you deal with it right then and there. Sometimes, this is a great way to get things done. Getting on top of requests the moment them come to you can be an excellent way to keep your inbox down and your responses rapid. There are entire fields where this is the entire point (tech support, for example).

There comes a point where this is not sustainable, however, for many positions. Looking back to my first blog entry on why multitasking is evil, I’d have to say that e-mail is the chief perpetrator of crimes against your productivity. Every time you’re in the middle of a task and you stop to check an e-mail and respond to it, you have broken your efficiency. The time needed to focus and then refocus on a task is not insignificant. While it may feel like you’re getting a lot done by answering e-mails while you’re working on the layout for that weekly newsletter, each time you come back to that newsletter it may take you a minute or two to get back to the point you were before, and certainly longer than that to get into whatever creative or productive groove you were in before.

“But I answered so many e-mails at the same time! I was productive!” Right. You did. But each of those e-mails would have taken you the exact same amount of time if you had waited an hour or two once your original task was done. The newsletter, though? That now took an extra 30 minutes, and maybe it has spelling mistakes or some flawed design because you weren’t focused on it completely. And that hit in productivity is only looking at the workplace in a vaccum where all you have that can jump up and hijack your day is an e-mail. In the real world you’ve got phone calls and walk-ins and the internet and text messages and IMs from co-workers and who knows what else.

The point here is that you need to create boundaries for your e-mail. Maybe you check it for an hour in the morning, two hours in the middle of the day and an hour at the end of the day. These are your rapid-fire periods. Your office door is open, the phone is on the hook and your e-mail is open for business. During these periods you can tackle all the short term tasks that can start to bog down your schedule

For the rest of the time, turn off your e-mail. Close the application. Don’t visit the webpage and by all means turn off the desktop notifier that pops up instantly and tells you have new mail. I killed my Gmail Notifier months ago and have never been happier. With your e-mail off, you can really focus in on whatever task may be at hand. If you can manage it, set your phone to forward all calls to voicemail and lock your office door. Give yourself 100% to what you’re working on and what you’ll see come out the other end will be a better product made faster.

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  1. #1 by Badmoodman on June 29, 2009 - 8:14 AM

    I think of work related e-mails as Lifehackers. Unsolicited e-mails I receive while working take money from my pocket since I am paid per project, not per hour or by salary. I may send my scheduler an e-mail with a request for information or questions on my project and then I can’t get a response fast enough because my going forward may hinge on her response. A follow up phone call met with routing to voicemail only results in clenched teeth.

    The fwd work e-mail chain puts me in internetty forensic mode. Ten people bouncing information off each other and you get injected into the chain after about the 20th e-mail, then have to scroll to the bottom of the page and read the conversation going upwards. That always makes me feel like I’m reading Yiddish, rotated at a 90 degree angle.

    But my “favorite” is the work e-mail I get while I’m not AT work but am expected to respond like the fate of the company depends upon it. This becomes even more curious when there is a follow up e-mail admonishing the fact that I didn’t respond quickly to the first e-mail. Because the immediacy of a phone call never materialized just makes the scenario ludicrous. And yes, this has happened several times to me.

    I think ‘The Onion’ may have been on to something though, with their article they wrote some time back, “Study Finds Working At Work Improves Productivity.”

  2. #2 by Oliver Grigsby on June 29, 2009 - 2:32 PM

    God, part of me really wants to do this, the other part of me is absolutely terrified. I feel like so much of what I do depends on instant responses. And I guess that’s the crux of the issue. Convincing yourself that people really can wait a couple hours to get a response and if it really, truly is that urgent they should learn to pick up the damn phone.

  3. #3 by mscarpel on June 29, 2009 - 2:45 PM

    @Oliver Grigsby
    You’re in an interesting field, too.

    TV is such a high-pressure environment with really broad structures in hierarchy filled with people that aren’t used to waiting.

    But it’s also a creative field and breaking your creative thread with a distraction like e-mail can be crushing.

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