In the prior post, we learned about how you can control what you can organize; and while the last lesson was all on organization, this lesson is about exercising your control over your email and your workflow.
The concepts that I am going to discuss next are a mix of email management and productivity. As I’ve gotten better at managing my email inbox, I have realized that it’s not just about the setup of the email inbox itself. Its also a mindset about not letting your inbox rule your life, rather enhance your life.
Your New Workflow
When I started down this path, I quickly realized that the main goal of changing my email habits was around spending more time on more value-added projects for my business. Letting new emails, notifications, and other distractions rule your workflow is no way to be a productive individual.
Creating a workflow where you can spend the least amount of time processing your inbox and maximize your time working on value-added projects is the goal.
How do you get there? It’s a series of steps that I’ll take you through next in order from most important to least:
- Process your inbox @ 11 am & 4 pm ONLY (or twice daily when it works for you)
- Set email boundaries
- Understand the impact of distractions on your workflow
- Shut down all notifications
- Stop responding to emails that you are cc’ed on with no direction.
I’ll dive in deeper into these 5 concepts now and how implementing each new habit can have a compounding effect on your time, your productivity, and your happiness.
#1 Process your inbox @ 11 am & 4 pm ONLY or twice daily
Every day you have a limited amount of bandwidth. Some of you can work like Gary Vee with superhuman abilities, others struggle to get up and going each day. This first principle is about helping you understand that and how you can use your email workflow to grow your bandwidth.
Your first new habit is to only process your inbox twice per day. Yes that’s right, you will only touch your inbox TWICE.
The philosophy here is about controlling your work through understanding your personal work cycle and for others managing their inbox.
The story I like to tell is how my old inbox worked…
Each morning I would wake up, go to the bathroom, and check my email on my phone (yes, in the bathroom). Being the ambitious young business person I was, I would respond to some emails that others had sent overnight, earlier that morning…or worse, an email that had been in my inbox for a while. Now I’ve released that email out into the wild and am waiting for the other person to send it back.
Boom! Ready, showered and eating breakfast. Check my email again and I’ve gotten a response, so I respond again. This happened through the whole day like a game of Ping Pong.
***I was Bruce Lee with the nunchucks because remember, I’m the young ambitious businessman, and the other guy was all the poor souls that could not keep up with my emails.***
What was happening was I was creating so many new emails, and I was turning my inbox into a chat room. That’s not what email is supposed to be used for. Email is supposed to be a value exchange over chunks of data. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.
I stopped this madness and created stability and added value by checking @ 11 am and 4 pm. This was amazing. It allowed me to get out of my chat room and start to work on all the projects that I needed to get done.
Think about it – if you start your workday at 8 am and don’t check your inbox until 11am, you work your action list for a solid 3 hours. How many value-added projects can you get done? Also, you’re using your most productive and creative time in the morning to do your most difficult work.
11 am: your first check.
Remember to follow the inbox process – respond, forward it on, delegate the task, delete it, archive it, unsubscribe from it – do anything other than leave it in your inbox.
Ok, good job! Now that you’ve reloaded your inbox and responded to any urgent needs, you go back to your action list, go to a lunch meeting, or head out to a mid-day workout.
This is where the second part of processing inbox only twice per day comes in. You’re back from lunch, and it is 1 pm. You have another 3-hour run to dedicate to value-added work.
4 pm: your second check.
Again, remember to follow the inbox process – respond, forward it on, delegate the task, delete it, archive it, unsubscribe from it – do anything other than leave it in your inbox. Ok, good job! Now that you’ve reloaded your inbox and responded to any urgent needs.
Finishing up your workday, and your action list is already prepared for tomorrow AM…what?! That’s right, you are already prepped for tomorrow.
That changed my life, and if you do nothing else – DO THIS! Just look at what you just did. You created 6 hours of focused, value-added work, and you cut the sheer number of emails floating in your universe. Not only does this add focused time, it also adds bandwidth to your day, and changes what you’re capable of accomplishing each day.
#2: Set email boundaries
Boundaries, you need ‘em, ‘cause you’re sending the wrong message. This concept centers around two things, emergencies (not yours) and timing. Two things old-Bud trained people to do:
- I would handle your emergencies due to your lack of planning
- If you needed a response outside of business hours, I was your guy. The same goes if you loved being bothered out of office – still your guy.
Emergencies – everyone’s got ‘em, and you need to deal with your own. I learned a long time ago that your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part, and by checking your email constantly, you create more opportunities to deal with someone else’s emergencies. Just stop checking your email constantly! Check it twice per day and you will train people that you’re not available. You don’t need to tell anyone – it will happen naturally due to spending time on value-add tasks and taking care of your own emergencies.
Set business hours – This is about respecting and leading by example. My younger-self was the king of after hours email. I thought it meant you were putting in the extra work and trying hard. What I eventually realized was I was creating an expectation for my team that I did not really have, and I was creating an expectation for others that I was always available.
I’m not a believer in creating the unrealistic expectation that my team needs to go home at night, weekends, or vacations and always have their heads in their inbox. It’s just not setting the right expectation. I’m a believer in work life integration on YOUR own time.
I’m not advocating that you don’t work the extra hours or check emails at night if you need to catch up. I’m advocating that you don’t show others that you are. Nighttime emails should be written and set to send during the working hours.
If you’re a boss and reading this, I would like you to pay close attention. If you are sending emails outside of working hours, you are running the risk of alienating your team. Your team wants to please you, and asking for that TPS report on a Saturday afternoon, even when you don’t need it done then, is ruining your team’s morale.
If you’re doing this with the expressed direction that you do not expect your team to answer on the weekends, please stop. You’re pulling your team out of their family time and back into the office time and time again, and it’s exhausting them. No matter what you do, you can’t stop them from wanting to do it right then and there. It’s become second nature, and you need to understand that.
As you respond outside of business hours, you create additional work for yourself and set the expectation that you will respond.
I have found that everyone has a boss (even bosses have bosses), and if you are always responding Johnny-on-the-spot, whenever someone needs to get in touch with you for an answer, you’re going to get the call. This goes for everything – emergencies, nonemergencies, needless feather ruffling late Friday.
If you stop responding to people or sending emails on the weekend, you will immediately train the world that you are not going to email them back, and they won’t bother trying to get an answer. Please contact the other guy that has his head in his email because he can’t process his inbox in a timely manner and needs to be doing non-value-added work on the weekends.
Note about work on Nights & Weekends
A quick thought on working at night and on weekends. I’m not against it. Some people, like me, love to get stuff done faster and don’t wanna stop.
A few quick notes on my theory on the subject – at night do smaller tasks that don’t require as much creativity. You’re tired, and it’s best to delegate tasks, read reports, and consume information over being creative. Save those tasks for first thing in the morning.
Save time on the weekends for value-added work, such as work that needs your creativity and attention. If you can’t be interrupted during some work, then rock that work on Saturday AM. You move your life forward faster in your way.
#3 Understand the impact of distractions on your workflow
Distractions are slowing you down.
On average it will take you 25 minutes to get back to the task you were working on once you get distracted. You can’t control everything, and your coworkers will continue to distract you (positively and negatively). Distractions are about controlling what you can control. You can control your inbox, notifications, text messages, and phone calls.
We all want to have an open office policy to welcome coworkers and be accessible. That is great, but it can come at a price of getting interrupted all day, and then needing to get focused again each time. I’m not immune to this. Often I am a perpetrator of this myself because I share an office with my team, so I can always ask questions at any time with no warning or formality.
I don’t want to advocate to stop the interruptions or create a closed-door policy. I just want people to understand that we are susceptible to distractions, and we need to be aware of this, so we can set ourselves up to have the very best workflow possible.
#4 Shut down all notifications
Notifications are the worst, most annoying, constant distraction of all. I turned them all off, and it has been AMAZING.
I had become a slave to all the notifications that triggered my brain, much like an email, to pay attention to it and open the program ASAP. After I turned them off, I learned they were driving me all over the place and slowing me down.
Now I welcome the focus and only have notifications turned on for text messages and voicemails. All other notifications are turned off, and I will jump on Instagram or Twitter when I have some time in my day.
#5 Stop responding to emails that you are CC’ed on with no direction
This is probably the most difficult for everyone to follow. I get it, and I’m deeply passionate about this because it’s poor etiquette.
When I first explained how I deal with these types of emails to my wife, Sara, she was quickly taken aback and was like, “that is not practical for everyone,” and she is right. It’s not. This is probably the most controversial idea that I outline. So take it with a grain of salt and decide with whom and when you want to implement this concept.
Let me set the stage – the email is forwarded to you with no instructions on why the sender thought you should see, no directive given, no “Hey, I thought you would find this interesting.”
Worse yet, there are 30 emails in the chain, and you can’t track what’s going on.
So now work, or review, or something has just been dropped off. My workflow says, “ok, so the sender did not provide any context of what to do with it.” My vote is to delete it immediately. You don’t need to do anything because you don’t know what to do, and you were not told what to do; therefore, at best it was just sent for you to review.
When the sender wonders what happened a week later, just say, “There was no direction to take on the email, so I reviewed it and filed it away.” Chances are they will never do that to you again.
That’s my opinion on this subject. If you are the sender who often breaks this rule, stop it! Don’t ever do it again. Have the respect to summarize, highlight, or provide a direction to the receiver. If you are not going to take that time – don’t send the email.
I hope these tips on inbox processing, focus, and doing value-added work were worthwhile for you. A lot of the suggestions take discipline, but you’ll appreciate all the additional work you get done if you set yourself some new rules.