I remember my discovery of e-mail in the 1990s. I thought e-mail was a matter of wonder. As a publisher I found it miraculous that I could exchange typescripts with authors and editors in an instant.
In the succeeding years, my perception of e-mail changed. Though I never lost an appreciation for its uses,I began to find it something of a curse. It made it harder to escape from work. And the business of replying to e-mails seemed to expand to fill the time available.
In response, I’ve developed a system that works for me. It’s not perfect, but it has certainly reduced the stress and made me again feel positive about the medium.
The solution runs as follows (I’ve written it in the second person, which is how I wrote it for myself — it helped me to follow my own instructions):
1. Avoid thinking of ‘doing e-mails’ as a category of work. One doesn’t, after all, talk about ‘doing phone calls’. E-mails have content. Let the content guide when you deal with them. For example, if an e-mail concerns sales, deal with it in the time that you have scheduled for sales; if it concerns finance, deal with it when you are attending to financial matters; and so on. If you don’t follow this policy, you are in effect rewarding other people for e-mailing you by giving them priority: go figure!
2. In particular, avoid using the opening hour of the working day for e-mails. The opening hour is prime time: use it for getting to grips with the important task for the day.
3. When you are doing any kind of intensive activity (for example — in my case — reading a typescript), switch off the e-mail. If you don’t, you are in effect opting to be distracted.
4. Always keep the e-mail alert system switched off — otherwise you are again opting to be distracted.
5. When you read an e-mail, don’t answer it immediately unless (a) you wish to and (b) can do so rapidly (which is probably the policy you already use for paper correspondence). Bear in mind, the sooner you reply to an e-mail, the sooner you are likely to get a reply to your reply – so you can’t solve the e-mail problem by getting your replies out quickly. In any case, most replies are better formulated if you give your mind time to roll them over first.
6. With the e-mails that you can’t allocate to other points in schedule (point 1 above), make your default policy to interact with them only after 17.00. This reduces the risk of instant replies to your replies. A further advantage is that your regular correspondents come to recognise that they can’t expect instant replies: gradually, after a learning lag, they will come to tailor their own e-mails accordingly (rather than leaving them to the last minute and then sending you an ‘urgent’ message in the hope of transferring their crisis onto you).
7. Use other media. E-mail is not the optimum medium for every type of message. Calling people by phone makes more impact, the less other people use that method. And using the phone allows you to hear each other’s tone of voice (are they really busy? do they really need that document?).
8. In particular, use project management software. Software such as Basecamp is especially suitable for (a) projects that involve the transfer of files or (b) those that involve a number of people. By the way, most project management software (and certainly Basecamp) looks more aesthetic than e-mail, which given the amount of time one spends looking at a screen is an important feature: e-mail looks (to borrow a phrase from Sven Birkerts) ‘ungainly’.
9. Invest time now in unsubscribing to e-mail updates, newsletters etc. that you don’t need.
10. The last step is one that I don’t expect many people to follow me on, though it did make a major difference: ditch the smart phone!