Finding the Time to Better Manage Your Time

Part One: Navigating email.

Posted Apr 03, 2020

If you’re struggling to work from home, you’re not alone. Previously, many of us may have thought about how nice working from home might be—we can get our work done, have ultimate flexibility, and also push forward some of the more mundane aspects of living like laundry while taking our lunch break.

However, many of us now find that working from home feels quite different than how we had imagined it would. To be fair, working from home right now among the COVID-19 reality has placed extra strain on us ranging from financial, psychological, and health-related concerns about the future and keeping our loved ones safe, to perhaps juggling childcare responsibilities. Yes, much is different, but as I suggested previously, our ability to thrive in these challenging times depends on our ability to create a new normal.

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A well-organized workstation
Source: Denislav Popov/Unsplash

In this four-part series focused on time management and work productivity in our new reality, I share some practical advice on how to better lead ourselves through structuring our day to feel better, work more effectively, and adjust to our new reality by actively designing our new reality rather than feeling that the new reality is designing us. In part one of this blog series, I tackle one of the most detrimental aspects of our productivity in our modern work environment—email. While we are busy creating new routines due to COVID-19, there is no better time to create new structures around our email habits!

Being Managed By Our Email

Many of us actively check our email multiple times per hour, or perhaps we more passively have email open on one screen or tab while doing other tasks at the same time. But even in this second scenario we likely find ourselves flipping back and forth between screens or tabs multiple times per hour as we mindlessly check to see if any new emails have arrived.

Before we laugh this off and continue checking our email with the same level of frequency, let’s take a moment to consider why we might be checking our email so many times per hour in the first place. At the root, there are likely four interrelated reasons that reinforce each other and lead to an almost uncontrollable urge to micromanage our inbox: 

@Webaroo/Unsplash
The seductive notification of unread email
Source: @Webaroo/Unsplash
  1. We want to check items off our list and feel accomplished. It feels good to respond to an email and file it away, effectively “clearing” our inbox of clutter. Emails provide smaller, more attainable goals that we can accomplish and keep our workday moving forward.
  2. We want to feel in control. With countless competing demands and the challenge of focusing on a task, we know that by taking care of others’ requests of us, we can then get to a point in which we can feel more in control and able to focus on the tasks we need to get done. The problem with this way of thinking is that incoming emails are incessant and will rarely stop coming in long enough to reach that point where we finally feel in control of our attentional destiny. 
  3. We want to feel valued and needed. At a basic level, receiving requests for information, or being copied on an email sends the signal that we are valued and important. We may complain about the number of emails we receive and/or the number of unnecessary ones that are sent to us, but in the end, it feels good to be included. And this is especially the case when we possess knowledge or expertise, or have the decision-making power needed to effectively deal with the content of the email. 
  4. We may welcome the distraction. Our attention span is always quite short, but it may be extra short right now as we navigate the challenging environment. We thus may view email as a welcome distraction because we feel we may not have the attentional bandwidth or self-regulatory ability to focus on tasks that require more sustained attention. In other words, email provides a break for us to not have to focus on the bigger, more challenging tasks that we need to accomplish. 

Managing Our Email (and Not the Other Way Around!)

Now that we know why we may check our email so often, we can think about whether we may want to change this habit by creating some structures that help us become more intentional about our relationship with our inbox. Here are some practical tips to combat our email tendencies noted above.

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We don’t need to check this mailbox every hour
Source: Bundo Kim/Unsplash
  1. Don’t use your email as a task list. If you’re the type of person who needs and/or loves lists, then add “respond to emails” to your daily schedule, schedule it for 20 minutes, 3-4x a day, and keep to this schedule. In other words, shift from emails themselves being individual micro-tasks, to the task itself being “respond to emails” as a block task that you can check off your list when it is complete. This satisfies our need to check emails as well as check off our task list, but it importantly re-claims a lot of lost time and attention that the trickling in of emails and their responses may cause. Importantly, adjust the number of times per day that you check and respond to emails to match the needs of your job. If you are working in customer service and a primary aspect of your job is responding to customer inquiries, then the number of times you check your email should be much more frequent than a worker whose primary responsibility is creative work on long-term projects. 
  2. Don’t have your mailbox open. It is just too easy to want to check your email if the email program is always open. Schedule time throughout the day as suggested in number one above to open your inbox and respond to emails. Let’s get back to how we used to check our snail mail—usually 1-2 times per day, and very intentionally by going outside and checking to see if the mail had arrived. With email, many of us are currently doing the equivalent of sitting close to the window looking outside our home and constantly checking to see if the mail person has arrived—this gives way too much power to the mailperson than they should have over our day. It’s time to reclaim our autonomy and attention. 
  3. Re-find yourself. Once your identity as a constant email checker has been reconsidered a bit, spend some time thinking through and writing down how you will use the extra time you now have since you will not be spending as much time engaged with email. What projects have you been meaning (and need) to get to will you now be able to tackle? How will you (and even perhaps your loved ones and friends) benefit from you checking your email less and more intentionally? How will your increased levels of presence and focus affect your relationships and your ability to accomplish tasks without the habitual, unconscious, checking of email? How will your Zoom calls, dates, time spent with your family, or your task list change when you are no longer micro-managing your inbox? In short, being honest with yourself about what you and others stand to gain will help make the change toward being less consumed by email even more appealing and worthwhile.

Email is relentless and constant, and its detrimental effects are also relentless and constant. As you seek to recreate yourself in the current work reality, consider adding the structures discussed above to ensure email works for you—and not the other way around.