How to control email (and free yourself)

Silhoutette of man on a beach, holding laptop in the airIf there’s one area that unites most professionals, it’s the struggle with email. Whether it’s how to manage the daily deluge of messages in our inboxes, how to respond to them or how to write them so they don’t lead to misunderstandings, finding ways to control email (and not let it control us) is a challenge we all face.

The trouble is that email is everywhere. We send and receive more than 205bn emails a day [PDF], and when we open our laptops, email is usually the first thing we look at. Many of us will even check our inboxes immediately after our alarm wakes us in the morning.

At biology’s mercy

Our biology doesn’t help: we’re wired to search. That brief frisson of pleasure you feel when you realise someone’s emailed you is actually a small rush of the hormone dopamine. Unfortunately, it usually is very brief indeed, and followed by a sinking feeling as you realise it’s just another problem to deal with.

Opening yourself up to this kind of stress while you’re half-asleep does little to protect your mental health, and it’s also a real barrier to business success. That’s because in checking and responding to email so frequently and habitually, we’re building our agendas around everyone else’s goals, rather than our own.

I know this all too well. I’ve lost days to my inbox, veering wildly off track and wondering where my original list of goal-related tasks went. But there’s a lot you can do to stop email controlling your life. Here are some suggestions:

Take control with technology

Technology itself is one of the answers. There are several apps that will automatically prioritise key emails, categorise others and filter out the stuff you really don’t want to see at all. (Obviously check with your colleagues in IT before installing software on a work computer.)

For example, I’ve been using Sanebox, an intelligent system that files emails based on my history and behaviour, for over a year and it’s made a huge difference.

It puts emails from addresses it can’t find in my contacts list into separate folders, saving my inbox only for messages it thinks I need to see. Then it emails me a digest once a day to tell me they’re there. (I can check the folders any time.)

Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook and Apple mail also have helpful functions built in that are worth exploring. They’re less sophisticated, but free.

WeekWill goes one step further. It sends you a text and can even call you if you get an email from anyone on your VIP list, so that you can switch off your mail app altogether. You can then check any critical emails using webmail (which, as it involves an extra step, is less tempting). This revives the prospect of email-free holidays. Remember those?

Change your habits

You don’t have to use a technical fix. You could try restricting yourself to checking and responding to email for half an hour, say, three times a day. If that works, you could then whittle it down to twice, or even once a day.

For this to work, be sure to set an autoresponder to let correspondents know that’s what you’re doing. But be careful to word the automatic response sensitively or you’ll simply irritate people. Bluntly telling them that you check your email only twice a day will probably do more harm than good. (I’ve received emails like that and I confess it made me feel like the sender valued their time more than mine, even though I wanted to spend money with them.)

Instead, you could write something like this: ‘So that I can focus on doing the best work for my clients, I check email just twice a day, at around midday and 3pm.’ Then, throw them a lifeline, just in case: ‘If you need to speak to me urgently, don’t worry. Just send me a text or call me on …’ Most people will be happy to wait once you’ve reassured them in this way.

This method needs real discipline, though. You need to use these half-hour periods for quick replies only. An email that takes an hour to respond to is a task in its own right. So try to recognise such messages and acknowledge that you need to plan them in properly (sending a holding reply if necessary).

Take back your day

Whatever you do, do something. It’s not sustainable to let email hijack your agenda every day. It will seriously restrict your progress and could damage your mental health.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Guardian.

Image credit: Basar / Shutterstock

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