3 Tips for Dealing With Your Email Problem

August 10, 2019

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Raise your hand if you have an email problem.

We all do. We spend way too much time living in our email inbox. There, we feel “busy,” but at the end of the day, we usually haven’t really moved the ball forward on our important projects.

This is likely because, as someone smarter than me put it:

Your email inbox is a to-do list created for you by other people.

Let that sink in.

Your inbox contains requests for your time from other people. Some of these requests are totally legit. Some align with or are part of your important projects.

Others are not. Some are panicked emails shouting “fire!” because the sender dropped the ball and now wants you to bail them out — and that panic can be contagious. (Side note: we should all have post-it notes stuck to our computers that read “a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine”).

So here are three tips for dealing with email.

1. YOU decide.

Before you dig into your email inbox, YOU must decide what tasks are most important for you to accomplish that day. I encourage clients to have weekly planning sessions when you do this planning ahead of time.

But even if you don’t do weekly planning sessions, you must take the time to decide what you need to get done each day — before you check your email and get inundated by other people’s ideas of how you should spend your day.

Don’t relinquish that decision-making power to whoever emailed you last night. Obviously things may need to shift based on what you see in your inbox, but getting clear on what YOU believe you need to get done will help you understand that other person’s request in the context of your priorities.

For example, you may let that “fire!” email dominate the next two hours of your day if you’re not clear on what else needs to get done, but won’t if you’ve already reminded yourself that you have a big brief/report/grant/etc. due in three days that you must work on this morning.

2. Reduce the volume of email.

There are many ways to do this, but I’ll share three quick tips now:

  • Use to quickly unsubscribe from tons of junk mail. It takes less than 10 minutes and serves you well forever.

  • Send less email. You’ll get less email. This sounds so simple and obvious, but it’s true. If you often engage in 15-message long back-and-forths with someone to resolve an issue, try calling instead of emailing – it’ll take less time and lets you put that issue behind you faster. I dread non-social phone calls too, but it really does pay off. We can be brave together!

  • Tell people not to respond unless there’s an issue. Especially if you’re emailing a group of people, put an end to the 15 “thanks” emails that serve no real purpose and just distract you throughout the day as they roll in. Write something like “No need to respond unless there’s an issue” at the beginning and end of your email.

3. Stop letting email interrupt your entire day.

Get intentional about when you check email – and turn off your notifications so you’re not tempted to check at other times.

If email is not part of your core job description (and it’s usually not) (i.e., a customer service rep’s core job duties include a quick email response time, but a doctor’s typically doesn’t), you should NOT live in your email inbox. It’s a very reactionary and interrupted home base from which to attempt to focus on a project. You need distraction-free time to get your work done.

If it’s appropriate in your role, check email only 3 times a day: morning, before lunch, and about an hour before you leave for the day. If that doesn’t work for you, find 2-3 blocks of time (each 2-3 hours) in your week where you go dark to ensure you get that required focus time. No email. No distractions. Just real work.

Get creative and make sure you have no-email/no-interruption focus time in whatever way you can get it. (On a related note: get creative on where you have it. If you know people will interrupt you at your desk, work from home, at a coffee shop or, as one friend did it, find an empty office in your building and hide/work there. Get creative!)

Good luck! Let me know which tip works best for you.

And if you love these tips, you’ll love my mini-course on reclaiming control of your email inbox. Learn more here!

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  1. Liz says:

    Kelly, how do you handle an email that you have sent or responded to, for which you want to make sure you get a follow up? Today I had on my calendar to "email Mason regarding need for images". And I did. But what do I do with the idea that Mason might drop the ball and not reply? I need to follow up with him. Do you make that a task your calendar? It seems like such a small thing? Do you leave the email in your inbox or do you move it to the ACT folder perhaps with a calendar item to follow up on it?

    • Kelly Nolan says:

      Hi there! Two options:
      Option 1: As you mentioned, you could calendar the reminder to follow up. I do this sometimes – e.g., "If not word from Mason, follow up." If you’re using Outlook, you can do this by dragging the email from your inbox to the calendar icon, which will create an event with the email in the description.

      Option 2: If you use GSuite/Gmail, you can bcc yourself to your email and then "snooze" the email until the day you’d want to follow up. This makes the email leave your inbox until the day you schedule it to come back. Very nifty!

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