Here Are Five Tips To Mindfully Managing Your Emails

by Rasmus Hougaard

This is an updated version of the article originally published in
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Emails are the main source of communication in most companies and while many of us have mixed feelings about them: There is just no way of getting around them! There are, however, effective strategies to managing them.

Doctors now estimate that over 11 million Americans suffer from “email addiction.” Email addiction is similar to any other type of addiction. When you receive a grateful message from a client, praise from your boss, or an interesting article, your brain releases dopamine – a hormone that makes you feel good. It’s similar to playing a slot machine. Every time you pull the lever, you get a quick hit of dopamine as a reward. Craving this reward makes it almost impossible to avoid checking email whenever you hear a buzz, ding, or other email notification.

For 10 years my colleagues and myself have helped managers and executives be more effective and more mindful in managing emails. I would like to share the five most important things you can do to truly change your email habits and free up time to do more important things.

#1: Avoid email first thing in the morning

In the first half of the morning, the brain is generally most alert, focused, and creative. While many people open their email first thing in the morning, that’s not the best use of this period of exceptional focus and creativity.

Opening your email first thing in the morning immediately draws you into an onslaught of short-term problems. As your brain adapts to the pace of email, your early morning creative energy dissipates. Choosing email as your first task of the day can be a wasted opportunity to use your mind for more important work, like strategic planning. Instead, try waiting at least half an hour to an hour after you get to work before checking your inbox.

#2: Kill all notifications

Having your email always on, even if only in the background, can create a lot of unnecessary “noise” both for you and the people around you. A lot of the time, getting a new email pulls your focus away from the job at hand, forcing you to shift from task to task. When it comes to email, you can do yourself a favor by switching off your email notifications, pop-up windows, alarms, and ring tones.

Over the next couple of days, pay attention to what happens to your focus, your productivity, and your well-being each time you’re distracted by an email notification. Then try working for a couple days with the notifications switched off. After that, you can make an informed decision about what works best for you.

#3: Secure focus time

You have the choice of planning your time and activities in a way that facilitates getting important tasks done. Arne Sorenson of Marriott plans uninterrupted hours of focused meetings, with no phone, computer, or tablets around. Jean-François van Boxmeer of Heineken blocks out a percentage of his time for doing important tasks. Dominic Barton of McKinsey takes a long run every day to process, reflect, and synthesize. In each case, these exceptionally busy leaders are putting aside specific blocks of time designed to increase their focus. For them, disciplined focus is a mantra for productivity.

The idea of focus time, however, often conflicts with an always-on organizational culture. Focus time therefore requires some principles and preparation. To help, here are a few things you can do:

Block focus time in your calendar. Rather than prioritize what’s on your schedule, schedule your priorities.

Block one hour (or more) each day in your calendar for every work day of the week, month, and year. Be disciplined about utilizing this hour for focused work.

Plan your focus time for the time of day when you’re naturally most focused. If you’re best focused in the mornings, make that your planned focus time.

As you enter your focus time, define clear goals. Then stick to these goals. Avoid email, texts, IMs, or other unfocused activities.

Eliminate distractions. Close your door or find an isolated space. Put your phone away. Keep your desk clean and free of distracting notes.

The challenge is not only external distractions; internal distractions can be even stronger. Compartmentalize other issues. Right now, you’re doing more important things.

As much as you may feel like checking emails or messages, don’t give in to a dopamine craving. Instead, be disciplined about staying focused, so that you can get the most out of the time. Then, in a similar manner, allocate specific times for dealing with email.

#4: Allocate email time

If you’re checking and responding to emails all day, you’re not fully focused on your work or your emails. Instead of shifting your attention whenever an email arrives, allocate fixed times during the day to fully focus on email.

When allocating this time, consider these questions:

How often? Determine in the course of a day how often you should concentrate on email. The answer depends on your own temperament, the nature of your work, and the culture in your organization. Two or three times a day, though, is usually sufficient.

How Long? How long your email sessions should last depends on the volume of emails you receive and send every day. Take the total time you anticipate spending on email and divide that by the number of email sessions you anticipate in a day. That should give you a starting point for how much time to allocate for each email session.

When? When you should deal with your email depends on your general daily program and your organization’s culture. One email session in the morning (again, not first thing) and one again in the afternoon is ideal. If three are necessary, consider adding a short session just before or after lunch.

Whatever you do, don’t check your email on autopilot. Create separation between yourself and your inbox; give yourself time to focus specifically on other tasks. Then give yourself time to focus specifically on email. Both your overall job performance and your resulting emails will be better for it.

#5: Discuss email culture within your team

Take a moment to consider the digital communication culture within your team, department, or organization. Are there boundaries or policies in place so you and other employees can “unplug”? Are email and other forms of digital communication polluting your work environment? If so, take a moment to consider steps you can take to help your team create more mental space in this digital age.

Too many people spend too much time tethered to work. Although for some organizations this may sound good, it’s not. It negatively affects well-being and performance.

A strategy doesn’t need to be as radical as eliminating email. There are many simple first steps such as ensuring people actually “turn off” when they “take off.” And many teams have policies for shutting off devices during meetings so that people can make better use of their time. Sometimes, seemingly small changes to your daily work life can have an enormous impact. This is one of those times.


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