I have to admit that at this point in time, email checks me.
I like to think that I am good at email…
I generally respond quickly to emails. I take action on emails and get them out of my inbox as quickly as I can. I try to respond as quickly, thoroughly and helpfully as I can. I’m not quite up to my husband’s standards of one word replies, but I make a practice of quoting sections of email I’m responding to so that I don’t need to use too many words to make the conversation understood. I know some people find this weird, but I like it. I even use proper sentences and punctuation in my emails! I don’t always proof read them, so there may be mistakes, and I do throw in smilies here and there, but overall they’re not too shabby.
Thanks to watching Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero presentation I have a reasonable organisation system. I have a few more emails in my inbox than I think I should, but it’s not too crazy.
I have all kinds of Gmail filters in effect, which after being totally bombarded with emails upon announcing the launch of Kristarella Studios, I tidied up and rearranged. A lot of non-urgent emails skip my inbox entirely and things that I need to respond to (but am not right now) are marked with stars (or exclamation marks or question marks etc).
Despite all this “being good at email” I find that I have less and less energy every day to deal with email. It just keeps coming and I keep feeling like I want to run and hide from it. The fact that I want to run from it and yet feel obliged to maintain my “good at email” status and continue to check it constantly, definitely indicates that email controls me.
It’s sucking the life outta me and I am not sure what to do about it.
When should I check my email?
I think the first answer to this question is less frequently. Seriously, I check my email pretty much every time I switch tasks. If I hit Cmd+TAB to change programs I inevitably find myself at Gmail, just to see if there’s something I should attend to. If my brain fades for a moment and I forget what I was just about to do, I check my email instead. As I think about how often I look at my inbox I think, “This is just not normal.”
A friend said the other day, he wasn’t sure if people check their emails between Friday afternoon and Sunday night… While here I am checking every 20 minutes or more!
Also, check at the right times of day. Don’t check your email as soon as you wake up or before you go to bed. I read that fantabulous suggestion on LifeDev.
Some people might be able to check their email at these times in a healthy way. My husband checks email on his iPhone as he wakes up, and it works for him. I drag myself out of bed and plonk down in front of my computer… in my pyjamas… every morning. I generally don’t get up until I’m so hungry or tired that I need breakfast or coffee, or I’m sweaty or cold and need to shower and put real clothes on.
Checking your email before you go to bed can leave you with thoughts that prevent you from sleeping. I’d be much better off reading a chapter of a novel than emails before bed.
Turn off those notifications
I did this years ago, but I’m just saying it in case you are in danger of being controlled by your email. Don’t let your email client beep or ding at you when you get a new email!
It’s distracting, and I know it’s exciting, but it’s too often a Facebook friend request, a reply to a comment on someone else’s blog, a newsletter, or some stupid thing that’s harder to unsubscribe from than to delete every few days. It’ll be much more exciting when you get through all the things you intended to do today because you weren’t distracted by email every 5 minutes.
Don’t let Twitter become your inbox
Twitter is cool and I will respond to questions, replies and DMs if they warrant a reply. However, I don’t think it should become a reliable method of contact such that it replaces email. Also, if you have stopped checking email as soon as you get up, don’t replace it with checking Twitter as soon as you get up!
Don’t let your inbox be your task list
I used to use my inbox as my to-do list. Anything that I hadn’t replied to was in there, as well as anything that I needed to get done.
This resulted in an inbox that was not only very large but also overwhelming and ineffective. It also resulted in a task list full of things that generally didn’t get done.
Some people promote email to send yourself reminders. I used to do that a lot; especially when I used the university library computers. I could open up Gmail to send myself notes, links and documents. It’s a perfectly valid productivity approach. Just don’t let your inbox be your task list. If you really want to use emails as a list, make a separate folder or label for those tasks. If not, deal with the emails by adding the details to an outside task list and archive or delete the email. Then make a time to actually deal with those things.
Email is a form of communication. Sometimes you can use it to communicate to yourself, but if you don’t respond to yourself, you won’t be sitting there thinking “Dude?! Why aren’t you replying to me?” Someone else might be.
Don’t ignore people
Of course — and this is part of what has made me into an email-whipped basket case — you don’t want to ignore people. Particularly clients who pay you and will speak of you to others.
I want people to feel like I’m listening, I care about their needs and I want to help them. In fact, I don’t just want people to feel that way. I do want to help them. That’s why I’ve spent so much time on the Thesis forums and answering questions on my blog, Twitter and email as well.
James made the point on Freelance Folder that you shouldn’t ignore your clients. However, I think you also need to build a reasonable expectation with your clients as to how long it might take to reply to emails and what the best ways and times to contact you are.
If it’s urgent, email is the wrong medium. For me, if I’m on my computer, I’m connected to Google Talk. So that’s a much better way to catch me for something urgent. And if I’m not at my computer, then I probably can’t help you immediately anyway. For others, a phone call might be better.
Also, if I keep responding to emails immediately then people will always expect me to respond immediately. If I hit a busy patch, or need a rest, or can’t face my email because it’s driving me insane (as has been the case a couple of times in the last week and if you were victim to that, I apologise). It’s not practical and it’s not sustainable.
What’s the answer?
So, what’s the answer to prevent email from checking you into an email-controlled, email-whipped basket case who can’t face their inbox?
step 1: stop treating email as instantaneous communication. treat it like snail mail and just check it once/twice a day.
Email brings an added expectation of immediacy. People expect your response yesterday, so good time management comes in handy.
I find regular intervals much more productive. If I responded to emails immediately, I’d be forever typing.
Both of those responses indicate that timing is where it’s at. You need to meet people’s expectations of immediacy, without treating it as an immediate communication method.
For me, I think the answer will involve not checking emails as soon as I get up. Perhaps I’ll check email after I’ve showered and had breakfast and while I have my morning coffee. I should also check email regularly, but not constantly. Regular, as in orderly, periodically, in conformity; not necessarily frequently and certainly not all the time.
It should also mean that you reply to emails that require a reply. Don’t put replying off because you’re afraid of the email content or the sender, or because you don’t feel like it, or because you feel overwhelmed. If you’re good with most of your emails, but one or two fall through the cracks, then you’ve let one or two people down (yes, I’m looking at myself as I say these things).
It’s not only timing that matters, but content too. These tips for making email more effective might help with that.
Regularly, but not constantly. I think that might be my new email mantra.
What do you think?
How long do you think is a suitable time to wait for a reply to an email? Does the content of the email you sent make a difference? Would you rather receive a quick “Thanks for your email, I’ll respond with more detail in X-ish hours.”, or just wait for the full response?
Do you check email or does it check you?