The Burden of Emails – A Potential Solution

Emails are a blessing and a curse to knowledge workers. The promise of email has been that it will improve productivity and enhance communication. Yet the irony of email is that it often does the exact opposite – decreased productivity and reduced communication. However, when used appropriately email can live up to its potential.
Old fashioned snail mail

In the not so distant past I used to load up my email client and kept it running in the background. Sometimes when I was bored I would check my email client to see if anything interesting had arrived in my inbox in the past few minutes. Usually there was nothing, or if there was it was usually some sort of generic mass email (“Come check out our online sale for things you might want!”). But every once in a while there would be an email…one addressed to me! I would get a jolt of excitement and open the email to respond as quickly as possible. Then very quickly, I would be back to the edge of my seat waiting for the next email.

Yet at the end of each day like this I was exhausted. Even though I hadn’t accomplished much work (usually because I was interrupted every few minutes), I still felt completely drained at the end of the day. My email client was not just draining my laptop battery – it was also draining my own energy. I was falling victim to the power of intermittent reinforcement, which is where the rewards are spread out over time and occur randomly – similar to the slot machines at casinos. Having realized that I was being trained like Pavlov’s dogs to salivate at the sight of an email, I realized I needed to take back control from email. After extensive searching (i.e. going to Google and searching for email productivity tips) I came across a viable solution in the book “The Power of Less” by the blogger Leo Babauta.

Though not the originator of this concept, this book has an excellent description of email batching.  This basically involves checking email at set times throughout the day and not allowing email to interrupt your work. Importantly it means that you do NOT leave your email client running, you do NOT allow popups on your phone and you do NOT allow yourself to check your email every 15 minutes. What it DOES mean is that you define the terms of your relationship with email and reduce the slow burn on your energy from a constantly running email client in the background.

The first question/challenge that comes up with this approach is how often to check email. For work emails – this will largely depend on your job role. Some jobs require frequent email checking as part of their description (i.e. a tech support role that uses email for communication . So for jobs like this you may decide to check your email once every hour at a set time period. For other jobs that depend much less on email you may be able to check it much less frequently – once or twice a day or possibly even less. For my job as a physician, I try to check my email once per day at lunch time. I’ve found this to usually be a quiet time that I generally have available to work through my emails. Some people in different jobs may be able to check their email even less frequently than once per day, perhaps even once every few days.

The other major challenge with email batching approach is that it is very easy for the number of time you check your emails to slowly creep up over time. I have sometimes found myself checking it consistently once per day, then gradually for one reason or another (boredom, curiosity, etc.) I will check it outside my scheduled time once every other day. Then slowly every day, and then eventually I am back to the slow drain of constant email. So be vigilant about structuring your email batching!

The advantage of email batching is related is that it reduces the cognitive burden of switching. It’s not just the time spent in the interrupting task, it’s the time spent shifting gears. For example if you are going from writing or painting, to doing something like checking your email, the time cost is much higher than you might think – 10-15 minutes at a minimum. If, throughout the course of the day you are interrupted 8-10 times that is nearly two hours of your eight hour day or 25% of your day spent in transition between tasks. Batching your emails will prevent interruptions that reduce your train of thought and will allow you to accomplish more as you work on your other tasks.

Some people may argue that they are not able to check their emails infrequently. However, there are a few reasons why this approach (when modified to suit your needs) could work. The first is that your immediate (i.e. <1 hour) responses are less essential than you think. Most employers prefer quality of response rather than rapidity of response. If there is something truly urgent that needs a rapid turnaround time, then the proper method of communication would be in person or over the telephone. If this approach could still be an issue or you have concerns about implementing it at your work – talk to your supervisor and discuss their expectations about email. Tell them that you are wanting to try and reduce the frequency of checking emails in order to make yourself more productive for important tasks. Hopefully they will respond well to this, because in most cases you were hired to complete some form of work and not answer incoming emails.

Email batching has been one of the most important techniques for improving my efficiency at work. Rather than using most of the day being reactive responding to emails, I am able to respond in a timely manner, and conserve my energy so that I can be proactive with most of my day. This allows me to control my email inbox and not be controlled by it. I bet that if you work email batching into your work style you will also see the same benefits.

What has been your experience with email batching? Are there any barriers that would prevent you from incorporating it into your work?


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