I have hit the half-way mark in my email challenge. I will start by saying that one of the strongest takeaways from this experience has been the importance of setting a daily intention. I am no yogi, but I do incorporate yoga into my regular routine. At the beginning of a yoga practice, I start by setting my intention. This helps me ground myself and actively work towards something.
In my work-life this week, I realized just how much I am allowing email to drive the flow of my workday. Even though I end each of my days by writing out a to-do list full of things to achieve the next day, I rarely reference this until around 4pm. Why? First off, I feel like I pretty much know what is on my to-do list; second, I allow myself to get so wrapped up in responding to emails that I am too busy to think beyond what I see there. In essence, I am allowing myself to feel as though my inbox is the highest priority of my day. And my to-do list — that will happen later. Which leaves me with a major problem. I’m the type of person who cannot go to sleep until I get through those tasks that I’ve set out to accomplish for the day. And I’m not getting to these essential tasks until I get through everything else. That everything else includes some important emails and meetings, but it is filled with lots and lots of white noise. And that is something that has become overwhelmingly clear to me this week.
Another realization is that I often use email checks as a “mental break” between tasks. Or, when a task gets difficult and I need a quick breather, I’ll turn to my email. What kind of mental break is looking at your inbox? My rationale is that I will plow through some messages, providing a sense of satisfaction for having cleaned up and cleared out emails. However, nearly all of the time, at least one of those messages is a time-intensive task. But, because my mindset is “let’s bang out all the messages in my inbox,” I find myself switching to this new task and I always under-anticipate how long it will take me to deal with. So suddenly, I find myself with 15 tabs open, and I’m juggling two thoughts at once. Not to mention the fact that I was feeling the need for a mental break at the time! The outcome: instead of giving myself a mental break, I have done quite the opposite – add a whole lot of stress to my brain. Instead of one thing on my brain, I have created two open tasks. And because I work in a school, there is a high likelihood that somebody will talk to me in the middle of all of this. So I would obviously turn my attention to that immediately. And when I finished that conversation, I would probably do a quick email check before resuming my 2 open tasks and 15 open tabs…
Without question, I was more mentally present throughout the day with my inbox paused. So many times, during a meeting, I will see a notification of a new email come in and will take a quick glance at the message preview. It’s a habit. But it takes my focus away from being engaged in the conversation at hand. The same thing happens during informal conversations with colleagues. I normally have notifications enabled on my phone so that when a new email comes in, I see a preview pop up. I am constantly glancing at my phone and, without meaning to, my attention is constantly divided and distracted.
One thing that worried me about doing this email challenge was that I would feel a sense of overwhelm when I looked at my inbox since I would be going for considerably longer periods of time between email checks than I was used to. But I never felt that way this week – in large part because, by processing in batches, I was able to bang through my inbox more efficiently. What I did struggle with, though, was feeling that I was missing out on an important message. A couple of people did use the ASAP or urgent message line this week in emailing me, and those were actually the only email messages that were time sensitive. But it was hard to *trust* my system.
This past week, I realized that I was using my phone much differently than normal. It’s amazing how productive we feel always typing away at our phones and chipping our way through little bits of email all day long. But with my set email checks, I found that I was rarely using my phone to check email. Processing my inbox on my computer honestly felt quicker and more efficient than I could have expected.
Don’t think that I wasn’t constantly on my phone this past week. My phone addiction is real and tackling the email challenge was enough for one week. But, I found myself doing other things on my phone that served me better than banging out one more email. Instead of opening my email, I opened my Notes App and worked on an open thought. (I use the Notes App to draft longer email responses, create lesson ideas, layout blog posts, etc.) I actually really enjoy walking and writing things. A solid half of all blog posts that I’ve written have been composed while walking. When I’m walking, I feel less distracted and my head is clearer. One day, I’ll probably walk into something or fall into a giant hole… but I am counting on my 7 pound toy poodle to save me from that :)
So, instead of checking my email when ‘bored’ or trying to kill time (i.e.: when in a long line), I found myself opening my Notes App to type out thoughts and ideas. I often have a good amount of mental energy in these moments. Typically, I use this time to compose and send off one more email. But most emails that I can respond to immediately don’t require much creativity or energy. In the future, I will be more mindful of my energy level and choose what to open on my phone with more intention. Instead of always opening my email first by default, I will choose times of high energy to engage in more creative work and focus on output (instead of allowing myself to be distracted by an inflow of information).
I will say that I could not have been successful in this email challenge without setting my inbox to pause. Not only did it make it so that I had to go out of my way to “cheat,” it also allowed me to respond to emails during my ’email break’ periods. I think this was a major reason that processing my inbox felt so much easier and quicker this week. During my email check window, I processed only those emails that I could bang out in 3 minutes or less. Anything that required more time and effort, I either: 1. left in my inbox to handle as a task (if I knew I could handle it within the next couple hours); or 2. Boomeranged the message to return to my inbox at an appropriate time/day (I will talk about how I’m using Boomerang to schedule and organize messages in a future post). Without being distracted by incoming messages, I responded to all quick emails first and left the emails that would take more thought and time as tasks for later.
This experiment has also help me filter messages by importance. As I mentioned before, a couple of people did use the urgent or ASAP subject line to break the pause filter. Decisions can be wearing and this strategy automated the process of deciding which emails were more urgent or pressing than the others.
The one thing that I struggled most with was setting an end time for my email. I’m so used to checking my email right before I go to bed. It feels ‘good’ to know that I don’t have too many things lingering out there. I originally set my last email check for 9pm. But so many of my colleagues email later at night, so I knew that I would be missing messages if I didn’t do another, later email check. I am still not sure exactly how to handle this or what time to set as a cut-off. There has to be a sensible balance somewhere, but I have not been able to strike that yet. Though I must say, one benefit of allowing some email to hang out is that things sometimes resolve themselves when you give a moment of wait time before responding.
To conclude, this email challenge has helped me become aware of so many decisions I am making to my daily workflow that I wasn’t aware of. After four days, I know that I have only scratched the surface of discovering strategies to improve my productivity and happiness. My next steps will be to:
- Continue to pause my inbox, but set a couple more checkpoints. A goal will be to find a realistic end time that I can stick to.
- Set a daily intention. I will write this down each morning and do a quick reflection/self-check at the end of the day.
- Put a manageable amount of things on my to-do list, being aware that a chunk of emails each day will need to turn into tasks that should be responded to that day.
- Schedule meeting days. Instead of scattering meetings each day, I want to see if chunking consecutive meetings in a row and leaving myself larger windows of work time might improve my workflow. I’m not sure if I will realistically be able to do this, or if I will like this method, but I would like to give it a try.
I will follow up soon with a post on how I am using Boomerang to: pause my inbox, schedule emails, keep track of emails that need to be followed-up on, and maintain my inboxzero.