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Escaping email overload

Fingers on keyboard photo- Rita Perea is president and CEO of Rita Perea Leadership Coaching and Consulting, specializing in working with senior leaders and managers to successfully engage employees, lead teams, manage change and balance work and life.   

     In these times, we’re all being called upon to do more with less — less time, less money and fewer people. This pressure can create a hamster-on-a-wheel feeling as we scramble to get everything done. Although the rules of business have changed, many people haven’t received updated skills training on how to manage the flow of information into their lives, especially through email.

    Recently I conducted a leadership institute with a group of directors from various organizations. During our group sessions and individual coaching meetings, I asked about their biggest source of stress in their jobs. Almost every single person said the amount of email they received and responded to each day topped their list. This overload caused them to develop unhealthy habits surrounding email, including working tremendously long hours and a life without balance.

    Effectively overcoming this time crunch and email overload requires developing new habits. But before you, or anyone else, can change, you need to know exactly what you’re already doing. That’s why I ask clients to do a time audit. During this process, you look at how you use your time over the course of three days. By logging your activities in 15-minute increments from the time you get up in the morning until the time you go to bed at night, you can pinpoint where your time is going and why you feel like you don’t have enough.

    Although many people don’t see it this way, spending time is like spending money. Just like you have a certain amount of money in the bank that you can use to achieve your goals and enjoy life, you have a certain amount of time each day that you can spend on your personal and professional activities. When you overdraw from your banking account, you run into problems. The same is true when you try to take too much out of your time account. It doesn’t work, and you feel stressed. That’s why you need to make sure you’re spending your time effectively and efficiently to accomplish your objectives for the day.

    After you complete your time audit, you can identify where you’re “overspending,” and clearly define the ideal life that you’re trying to create. As you ponder your balanced lifestyle, think about activities such as exercise, vacation or simply getting work projects done on time. Once you’ve envisioned your ideal, you can create a plan for how to build that lifestyle within the constraints of your responsibilities at work and at home.

    At work, one of the biggest keys to achieving this balance involves limiting the octopus-like control of email over your schedule. If you’re spending every spare minute answering messages, when can you move forward on projects?

    Another key to "work flow wow" is limiting the frequency and length of time you spend checking email. Many people feel like they need to respond immediately to all email, even if it’s not a priority. In brief, here’s my solution: Limit yourself to checking email three times a day. Preferably you’ll do this in 30-minute time blocks in the morning after your project time, before you go to lunch, and before you wrap up for the day.

    By breaking the control of email over your schedule, you will not only increase your productivity but also your inner peace. Before you implement the email skimming process described below, consider these keys to success:

  • Turn off any email alerts. Even if you don’t constantly check your email, alerts will create psychological distraction that can cause you to take up to 25 percent longer to complete tasks.
  • Don’t email when you should call. If you’re writing over five lines, picking up the phone can be more efficient than using email.
  • Email doesn’t stand for immediate response. You need to get out of the habit of feeling that you must respond immediately to others or expecting them to do the same for you.

    Now that we’ve covered some of the ground rules, here’s a guide to skimming your inbox. Each time you open up your inbox during your allotted time blocks, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is answering this email going to bring me closer to achieving one of my goals?
  • Can this email wait until tomorrow?
  • Will delaying my response keep someone from accomplishing his or her work?
  • Could I respond to multiple emails in a single email reply?
  • Can I delete or ignore this email without serious repercussions?

    As you begin this process, you’ll find that very few of these messages actually get you closer to your goals and even fewer require immediate responses. I highly encourage you to try out this method and start to experience workflow wow!

© Rita Perea, 2016

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