The Evil of Email

I loved hearing about how different people encourage community in response to last week's piece A Community of Strangers. A few people raised the point that you need motivated neighbours. I agree, but we can get the ball rolling.

Onto this week's Journal.

A word of warning that as per the title, this week I’m writing about the evil of email. While somewhat ironic that I’m writing about the evil of email in a weekly email - it's our unhealthy relationship with it, not email itself that I'm worried about.

A few years ago I remember being so proud that I’d sent something like 150 emails in one day. What a productive day I thought upon reflection. My mindset was that productivity equals emails sent, or that’s what I was led to believe.

Only after many years, I now know that not to be true.

To dig into the problem with email, we need to look at its origins. In the early 1980's IBM launched a new internal email system, they built a server to amount for the typical volume of intra-office interactions, in one week the machine was overwhelmed with the new workload. It was designed to save people time, not duplicate the amount of mail by 1000x.

In 2012, consulting firm McKinsey released a report saying the average employee spent about 29% of their time in a week managing email. A 2015 survey raised that to about 40%, the equivalent of 104 works days in a year. More emails then you could poke a stick at.

I speak from experience when I say sitting and replying to emails all day, refreshing our inbox, frantically trying to clear it down to zero and responding in the quickest manner possible - is not productive, it feel’s productive, but it is a giant time trap.

I believe the way we use email in the workplace needs to change, drastically. We need to spend more time in a state of distraction-free working, or deep work as it’s often referred to. Completing single tasks and projects that really add value to our role. And spend far less time in shallow work; like emailing, meetings, instant messaging and web browsing.

Here are some tips I’ve learnt on how to spend less time on email, and ultimately less time in the office because you’ll be more focused and less distracted. I believe we can apply these at work, at home or with study.

1. Structure every hour of your day
Every hour matters, without a proper schedule it’s too easy to fall into a forever state of shallow work. You can do this in your calendar or on a piece of paper.

Split up your day into hour blocks and place time for deep work. Schedule slots for shallow work like emails and meetings, but I try and keep this to maximum two 30-minute slots per day (morning and afternoon).

Experiment to see what format works for you, but just remember to be selfish with your time - protect the deep work slots.

2. Review your list at the beginning and end of the day
A few weeks ago I wrote about a to-do list method, you can read that here. Using this method, review your workload at the end of the day, setting yourself up for the days ahead. This will help you be ruthless with your time, without falling into the distracted shallow work state.

3. Make your emails do more for you
When you are sending emails, make those emails do more work. There is a saying that sending emails creates more emails, so make the ones you send, do more and generate fewer emails.

For example, take the time and go into detail; if you need to schedule a meeting offer several options that work to reduce the back and forth if it’s reviewing a document - only reply once you’ve considered it and fed in all of your thoughts and changes. Taking the time will reduce the need for back and forth.

4. Turn your out of office on
One to help with the feeling of guilt when you are getting started, turn your out of office on letting people know that you are busy. Don’t say when you’ll respond, as not all emails are worthy of a response.

5. Don’t reply to everything
Maybe the toughest pill to swallow is not replying to everything. As mentioned above, not everything is worthy of your time or response.

To do more, in this case, you need to email less. Don’t reply if it’s hard to generate a response, is a question or proposal that doesn’t interest you or nothing outstanding will happen if you did respond.

6. Don’t check your email after work
Yes, it’s easy to have a cheeky look at emails when you're at home. Fire off a few, placing the hypothetical ball back in someone else's court, setting an example for your team and colleagues to be “on” at all times.

This is unhealthy to you and those around you. Protect time outside of work for things you want to do. Read, exercise, learn, socialise - just stay off your emails after work. I’ve found it crucial for my well-being.

Hopefully, this email has added some value to you today, or at least be food for thought. Take your team through some of those tips, or let me know what is working for you and what isn’t. These are the type of emails that I actually enjoy!