The one thing that is killing your productivity

Ok – so this title seems to be a little bit of click bait, but I couldn’t come up with anything catchy and I honestly believe it is 100% true. I could have gone with Emailing Failing (I do like a rhyming title) or the Error of Email (titles with the same first letters are a favorite too), but none of them grabbed my attention. Anyway, have a guess what I believe the one thing that is killing your productivity is??? Oh yeah – you already know…… its email.

I don’t think I am alone when I say that the thing that often takes up the largest chunk of my working day is email. Email has become the primary form of communication for most of us and many managers get hundreds of emails every day. We have email overload and the constant pressure to try to keep up with it can cause a significant amount of stress. Personally, I have tried to be ok with just having an overflowing in box, but this just totally stressed me out. I have also worked to try to keep up with the elusive inbox zero, but that was a short lived pipe dream, so there must be a better way to keep it under control.

The apparently simple task of reading and responding to emails is often extremely detrimental to our overall productivity and movement towards the bigger goals. In order to be really productive and make effective change we need to set some clear and strategic goals and then work on them, every day. I love to put everything in a To Do list, because at least if it’s written down then then it’s off my mind (and ultimately this helps me sleep better at night). I try to work on my list every day, but often times this gets sidelined by my email inbox, so that what I end up working on is not MY To Do List, but everyone else’s.

When working at our computers many of us have our email on in the background with a pop up whenever an email comes in. This momentary shift in our attention is incredibly detrimental to our focus and productivity. It is not clear exactly what the productivity price we pay is for having our email pop up, but many current studies show significant time loss. In a study by Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University (which is where my sister went and she’s really smart so it must be true), it was found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. People who look at their email every five minutes therefore waste 8.5 hours a week figuring out what they were doing and where they got lost. An even bigger cost was shown in a different study by the University of California (none of my family went there, but they still seem to be legitimate). This found that regaining our initial momentum following an interruption can often take upwards of 20 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong – email can be a wonderful tool and a great way to share certain information, but it often shouldn’t be the primary way that information is communicated. Indeed, in many situations email is a terrible form of communication. The vast majority of communication happens not via the actual words, but more so through non-verbal communication, such as body language and tone of voice. If this is the case then email is not an effective manner of getting the full message across. Emails often get misinterpreted, people get offended and read the message differently. Email is ultimately the biggest big cause of miscommunication in the workplace. In a 2013 survey by Sendmail, Inc., it was found that email caused tension, confusion, or other negative consequences for 64 percent of working professionals. Email is still a valuable adjunct to person to person communication, but it probably shouldn’t be the primary way we communicate with others!

So that’s it – delete you email account and refuse to participate. Wait…maybe not, I don’t want everyone to get fired (including me). Email definitely has a role, but here are a few ways to make email work for you, so that you are not working for your email:

Use email for what it’s good for

Quickly sending the exact same message to a large group of people. You can clearly re-read and control the message that you are sending and get the information conveyed quickly.

When you need a written record of something, such as documenting communication when someone is having work performance issues or sending out a summary and action steps following a meeting or conference call.

Sending clear cut messages that will not generate questions or have an emotional reaction involved, such as, providing brief status updates on a project, sending attachments and files (if you don’t use a shared drive of some other system to do this) or referencing an online source for more information.

When you need to communicate something but the timing is wrong – I often think of things at 5am but I am not going to call someone at that time, so I write an email and set it to be sent automatically at a more reasonable hour. This is also very helpful if you are communicating with people in different time zones.

Don’t use email when it is not the best tool for the job including:

Whenever there might be nuance or context that could be misunderstood.

To give complex, detailed or lengthy information or instructions that might require discussion.

When your message could be emotionally charged or is delivering bad or negative news. This includes when the receiver deserves an opportunity to give immediate feedback or a response. A good rule is, if you would hesitate to say something to someone’s face, then do not write it in an email.

When you need to communicate a more complex and involved message then do something really shocking and PICK UP THE PHONE. I know, this is scary stuff. Email and texting all the time has gotten everyone very used to having all the information before we need to respond. For some folks now, using the phone or having in-person conversations is uncomfortable, but it is very important for truly effective communication. In a 5 minute conversation you can get more done and more communicated then you will do in hours of emails. Conversations are quick – you don’t need to check spelling and check the content over and over to make sure it’s perfect, so phone calls are often quicker and much better for discussing any issues with complexity. Even better are in-person conversations where you can get the whole message from someone. This other great thing happens too – we actually form connections and build relationships this way.

Be a considerate and effective emailer

Effective use of email could be (and probably will be) a whole separate post in itself. If you are a manager or in a leadership position then you set the tone, so it is especially important that you use email effectively and encourage others to do the same. Some key areas that immediately come to mind are:

Think before you cc – If the person does not need the information, don’t need to respond or follow up on anything then don’t include them.

Be very specific in Subject Lines so the person knows what they need to do with the email from the outset (e.g. ‘for review’ or ‘response needed’) and so emails are readily searchable.

Keep messages clear and brief; think is this email really needed?

Think before you reply all – if the original sender is the only one who needs your response then just reply to them. If you send out an email to multiple people and you don’t want anyone to reply all, then just put all the recipients in the BCC line so they can’t.

Identify if there is a better tool for the job – There are so many options, apps and tools we have at our disposal now that are often much more effective than email. For example, meetings can be scheduled through Scheduling Assistant in Outlook or tools like Doodle. Projects can be managed using apps like Slack, Trello and Asana. Documents can be shared using One Drive, Google Docs or Dropbox. Messenger systems are better for quick short communication rather than getting many emails. It is helpful to get familiar with more of the options so you and your team can work more effectively.

Learn how to set up your incoming email so it is automatically more organized and has some built in prioritization. This may include emails automatically going into folders and having specific senders emails be certain colors.

If you have to write frequent similar emails then setting up templates or automatic responses can be hugely beneficial and a real time saver.

Finally, Turn your email off and stop checking it every 2 minutes!!!

Ok hold everything – I know this one will send panic into the hearts of many and believe me, it makes me anxious too, but I challenge you to try it. Many of us are looking at our email way too often and this is a huge distraction. I would suggest turning it off and checking it at specific times throughout the day. Trust me – if there is an emergency and people need to find you then they will be calling, texting or actually walking to your office, so you won’t miss the important things.

I try to schedule my email checks every couple of hours and really stick to this. This can be a real struggle to get used to as we have often developed deep habits with checking our email. Checking our email has been found to have the same addictive mechanisms as slot machines, because they both follow something called a ‘variable interval reinforcement schedule’. Dr Tom Stafford in the book Mind Hacks states that this type of reinforcement “has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits. This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there’s something wonderful and I get a reward.” You therefore really have to work at sticking to these set times and not constantly checking it, if you truly want to focus on being productive and achieving big goals. I recently started using this approach as my email was taking over my work day and as a result nothing terrible happened. I still have a job and my productivity has dramatically increased. Chances are the headway I have made on my projects and strategic goals will have a much more positive impact than if I was able to respond to every mail in less than 20 seconds. The other thing I found by answering groups of emails at the same time, was that I was able to get through them much more quickly as I was more focused. Also, I often didn’t need to respond to an email because someone else had or the situation had already resolved itself. Of course if there is a job expectation that you are more frequent with your email checks, then you should let others know that you are trying this, as I am sure some situations where it is not viable.

Making headway with our goals and feeling like we are making strides towards being more productive is so important to many of us, so finding ways that our email can be better managed has huge impact for positive changes and real progress.

What tips and tricks do you have for managing your email?

Have you tried reducing the amount you check your email or focusing on other forms of communication?

What systems and tools have you found to be better than email at achieving certain things?

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