Three Email Strategies to Help You Reclaim Control From Your Inbox

June 5, 2023

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Welcome! We're all about realistic time management designed for professional working women here in this little pocket of the internet. I'm glad you're here.

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Full transcript will appear below within a week.

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Full Transcript:

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey, hey! Okay, welcome back! Today we are going to talk about email. Now, you don’t need me to tell you about the trickiness of email and that it’s a critical part of your work, typically, but it’s also hugely time consuming and disruptive. This is something that I really could talk on and on about. I’m gonna limit myself to three strategies today. Just know I do have a mini course if email is a huge pain point of yours. Go to my website www.kellynolan.com. But more importantly for today, we’re gonna really dig into three practical strategies you can use to help you reclaim control of your time from your email inbox.

Now, let’s just quickly talk about how we got here because I think it’s important to really understand the shift that needs to happen around email from a higher level. I’m all about practical things, but I think sometimes the motivation to do those practical things can be clarified through really understanding where we’re at. This is my personal theory based on my own experience working a lot. When you come into an entry-level job, whether you’re a first-year associate straight out of law school or you’re a new physician or maybe in residency (a new resident) or you’re right new into your company straight out of college or business school. When we’re brand new, we are often given the advice, whether it’s expressed or implicit, to be responsive. Your value to your organization is in being responsive and making everybody else’s life easier, which a huge part of that is being responsive and being able to help people when they need it.

That is good advice, but just to be clear, I think that when you are an entry-level new person, that is great advice because that is where your value is. You don’t know how to do the job yet, and so, being responsive, being willing to help out and all of that is where your value is. The tricky part comes up when after a few years (and it can vary by job whether it’s two years or five years, somewhere in there) your value shifts. It becomes more about what smart, creative strategy you can bring to the table in whatever industry you’re in.

In my experience, being able to do that requires focused time to probably a varying degree across industries. But to really bring the value of an experienced player in an organization, you do need some time to absorb information, take it all in, analyze it, and then start thinking about strategy going forward in a way that only you can do. Whether on that project, that case, with that patient, you’re really driving that strategy of it, and you need time to allow you to do that.

Not only is that where your value is now, it’s also what you’re evaluated on, if you have performance reviews and things like that. The tricky part is no one taps you on the shoulder and is like, “Hey, you’re at that stage now? You can actually stop being so responsive so that you can protect time to do that higher-value, more-experience-required work.” Because no one taps us on the shoulder to do that, we continue living in responsive land because that’s what we have been told to do, that’s what we’ve been rewarded and praised for doing. So we live in that responsive mode, but we’re getting evaluated and we are contributing with work that requires us not to be living in our email inbox but instead having some focused time.

So what happens is a lot of people spend their days living in their email inbox letting email and other requests on our time like living in reactive mode, during the workday, and then in the evenings and on the weekends when no one is bothering you, that’s when you do your focused work. We really want to shift that in a lot of ways, and that is a broader topic than just what we’re gonna talk about today because it’s a broader topic than just email because there are other disruptors as well like meetings and swinger-byers and Slack and all of those things. But today I want to focus on email, on that element of this.

So kind of knowing that context, knowing that we’re trying to shift you more towards being able to be more intentional with your time, of course in a realistic way — I completely understand that being responsive is still a major part of most of our jobs but in a less overblown way than I think we’ve been taught, and what I mean by that is, yes, being responsive is still an important component of your job and we need to accommodate that and be realistic about it and be responsive every single day, not just once a week typically, but it is not the most important part of your job. At the very least, it’s not any more important than your high, smart, creative strategy as well. So we need to really manage our time accounting for that and, yes, handling email and things like that, but also leaving space for that deeper focused work that we all need.

First Strategy: Timing – 5:33

Okay, so on that note, the first strategy and the biggest strategy is the timing of the email. I want you to really ask yourself how much time do you spend processing email every day, and you might not totally know. It’s okay, but just give it a guess, and you can always kind of finesse this over time. But how much time do you spend processing email every single day?

Now, a 2012 study out of McKinsey (I think that’s right) said that the average American worker spends 2.6 hours in email, and that was from 2012 (pre-pandemic). So if you’re thinning, “Oh, my gosh. Do I really spend three hours every day in email,” it’s probably a pretty good shot that you do. So try and embrace reality here. How much time are you spending? For some people, it might be as small as 30 minutes every day. For others, it’s more like two/three hours, and for others, it’s even five or more hours every day that you’re in email. There is no right or wrong answer here, and often, jobs can be different. So if you are a person who is more of an individual contributor role, a maker, you’re the one doing the work, it might be more like two or three hours, where if you are a manager where a lot of your responsibilities are kind of keeping the balls rolling and answering questions and not being the bottleneck and keeping everybody moving, that’s when you might be in there for five or more hours a day.

So just know that there’s no right or wrong. There might be reasons for the differences here and just understand what your reality is, because whatever your reality is, we need to account for it. We need to account for it in the plans of your day. Now, that does not mean that I’m gonna say if you are in email for three hours a day processing email then we need to block three hours of your time in your calendar for email. Not at all. Email does lend itself well to the nooks and the crannies, but we do need to account for at least an hour of those three hours for processing email.

What I mean by that is I want you to imagine that you create this perfect plan for every single day in your calendar where you lay out your meetings and the tasks that you’re gonna work on, and it’s beautiful, and lunch is in there, and all these things, and it looks great, and it’s completely full, and you have three hours of email that you haven’t accounted for in that plan, every single day you’re gonna have a losing game plan because of that. So we really need to account for some time (and I’ll defer to you on what makes sense to you) in your calendar for that email.

Now, I really encourage towards the end of the day. It doesn’t have to be your last hour, but let’s say it’s your last three to four if you end your day at five. Something like that. What I want you to understand is I am not an advocate of, “And then the rest of the time don’t be in email.” That’s not what I’m telling you. If anything, when I tried to do that as a lawyer, I found that more stressful, living in denial of my email inbox and trying to hide from it felt like the scary monster lurking in the closet. I just wanted to see what was in there, so I knew.

So what I recommend doing is not necessarily staying out of your email inbox. If you can, please have at it. It just wasn’t something that was realistic for me. If you are able to do that (stay out of email) that is awesome, and I want you to protect that focus. If, however, you are like past me that in my lawyer days so much critical stuff came in through my email inbox that living outside of it was too stressful, what I want you to do is shift your view of what you’re doing when you’re monitoring your email inbox, and by that I mean let’s say you block some time on a repeating basis in your calendar to process email, that allows you to monitor email but ask the question of every email that comes in: “Is this a fire or can it wait?” Is this a fire or can it wait until that 3PM time slot. Is this a fire or can it wait?

I often think we get derailed by email coming in because we are fearful that if we don’t respond right now we will forget, and I completely understand. I think that’s often also why we’re like, “I’m gonna try and focus on this, and oh, man, I forgot about that thing I need to do. Let me do it right now.” It’s not because it has to happen right now. It’s that we are afraid that if we don’t do it right now, we will forget about it again and not do it. By protecting time in our calendar to process email once a day, we are both protecting time to do it and making our plans more realistic and protecting time for email that we know is coming, we are also, though, allowing our brain to say, “I can continue focusing on what I want to focus on because I have time protected later to process email, and at that time, I will go look at this email. I don’t need to worry about forgetting about it at this point.” If you can shift into that by saying, “Is this a fire or can it wait? Is this a fire or can it wait,” you’re more able to let other emails go. You can still keep an eye on email if you want to, but you are able to let those emails go knowing you have time protected later to deal with it, and you can deal with it then.

Also, when you use your calendar like I teach using The Bright Method, and all of your tasks are laid out there using a lot of strategies and things like that so it’s not incredibly overwhelming, you’re able to say, “That thing that might look like a fire in isolation does not rank compared to the thing I really need to do right now that’s laid out in my calendar in black and white or a fun color.” That allows you to better see that the email that’s screaming, “Fire!” or something like that does not actually rank compared to the other things you need to be doing and allows you to evaluate and really keep your focus where it needs to be.

Okay, so to summarize this first strategy, it’s really getting clear on how much time you are spending in email, blocking an amount of time (it doesn’t have to be that full amount) that makes sense to you for processing email knowing that you’ll probably nook and cranny the rest of the email that you deal with every day. And then before that time comes, really, if you need to keep an eye on email I totally get it. Just try and shift into, “Is this a fire or can it wait? Is this a fire or can it wait?” and when you are evaluating whether something is a fire worthy of taking your time right now, make sure that you’re evaluating it in light of what you plan to do in your calendar, because that will help kind of reorient you and give you perspective again on what is a fire versus the thing that you really need to be focusing on.

Now, before we move onto the second strategy, what I do want to say is for those of you who are in email five or more hours a day, this might not be realistic for you. Obviously, protecting just one hour of email at the end of the day is not going to work for you, so you have a couple options.

One is blocking two windows of time, two, let’s say, hour and a half windows of time in your day to process email and then trying to stay out of it from a processing perspective the rest of the time. If that’s still not realistic for you, what I really want you to do — remember going back to what are we trying to accomplish here, we’re trying to get you some focused time that you are not living in email that you can focus on your other work. And so, if doing that on a broader basis in the way we’ve been talking about won’t work for you, then just own the fact that you’re gonna have to be in your email inbox or Slack or whatever you’re thinking about as we’re talking about this all the time. But I really want you blocking, let’s say, two hour and a half windows every week for that focused time that you do go dark, you’re not in email, you’re not in Slack. You are doing that focused work. So I just want to throw that out there for those of you who your value isn’t being in email so that you are moving the ball forward, and we just want to be realistic about that but still also get you the focused time that you need.

That wraps up the first strategy of the timing of when you process email and really just confronting it, owning it, creating a plan, and working within those plans as best you can.

Just to be clear, as with everything I teach, this is flexible. So if you are like, “I’m gonna do email three to four every single day,” and then meetings crop up or plans change, just move that block of time around. Be flexible with this. Flexibility is the name of the game. When I talk about calendaring, I really don’t mean create a rigid plan. My goal is let’s really get clear on where your time is going, confront it, get it out of your head, and create a plan for it so that you can really own it and then use that information to create realistic plans with everything else you need to do.

Second Strategy: Respond Without Responding in Substance – 14:06

Okay, so the second strategy is responding without responding in substance. So this is really for the people pleasers like me who, when I talked about that whole approach of when you watch email come in and you ask, “Is this a fire or can it wait? Is this a fire or can it wait?” and it slightly kills you to let some emails wait, even if they’re truly not on fire, even if the issue is not something that needs to be responded to right away, that people-pleaser tendency in some of us kind of activates, and we feel like we have this compulsion need to respond to that email. It might not be every email, but if it’s a boss or if it’s a client we just feel the need to respond right away so that they know we are on it. I can’t explain the full reason, but if you know the feeling, you know the feeling

Sometimes not responding is almost not really an option because our brain stays on that email even when we’re trying to get back to focusing on what we need to focus on. And so, I want to kind of just embrace that reality, and I’ve tried to find a solution that works for me (that does work for me, and so, I’m sharing it with you in case you are similar) is really responding to the email but not the substance of the email, so saying something like, “Received the email. I will get back to you as soon as I can.” “I will get back to you in a week,” whatever makes sense. “I will get back to you in the next two days.” “I need to look into this issue, and then I’ll get back to you.” Whatever it is, you’re acknowledging receipt, you’re saying that you’re on it, you’re letting them know that you are on it, but you are not actually getting on it in that moment to do the actual work, and that is really, really important because even when we think something’s just gonna take us just five minutes to respond to, I mean, we’ve all don’t that. We’re like, “This email is gonna take me 5 minutes,” and literally, 45 minutes later you’re still researching the issue, coming up with a draft, polishing the draft email, all of that kind of stuff.

We just need to be honest with ourselves of when we jump onto another email, how much we are derailing our plans when we do that. And so, responding in substance where it truly is maybe max five minutes to send some sort of email that you feel good about to that client — I mean, it’s probably less. But I’m just even saying on the highest side of things, it’s five minutes versus forty-five minutes or an hour and a half later, you’re responding in substance to an email, and you’ve completely lost sight of the plans that you knew you needed to do today just to respond to that email. And so, responding but not responding in substance is a major, major strategy that will make a big difference for you.

I even do this in my personal life. I have friends and family members send me articles and things like that that I know I will enjoy. I’m excited to read it, but I don’t have time. In that moment, I say something like, “Thank you so much! I can’t wait to dig into this,” and then I snooze it to a time that I will have time to dig into that. It’s just a really nice way to not leave people hanging and not feel the guilt of leaving people hanging, but also not have to do the time-consuming thing like reading the awesome article or digging into a response or even looking into an activity for your kid or whatever they’re sending you something about. You just often don’t have time in that moment, and that’s okay. You just can respond and say that you got it but not actually do the thing in that moment, and then you could always respond later once you’ve done the actual thing.

The one note that I want to say on this is be weary of saying something like, “I’ll get back to you by the end of the week.” If that is your go-to phrase, you will often have, by the end of the week, 20 things that you said you’d get to by the end of the week that are all stacking up on Friday when you’re trying to get out the door. So just throwing that out there. Don’t use that end of the week type thing. Really try and give yourself a rolling thing that if you say, “I’ll get it to you in a week,” on a Tuesday, and then on Wednesday you say, “I’ll get it to you in a week,” you have some rolling deadlines that work instead of trying to kind of have all those deadlines crash up against each other at the end of the week. So that’s a little bit random but just wanted to throw that out there that sometimes we do things like that that choke us up before we even realize that we’re doing it, and then we’re like, “Why are my Fridays so terrible,” and that’s often why.

I had a client really have that lightbulb moment that she realized she was doing that, and that was just a very powerful breakthrough for her to realize that her default freezing of, “I’ll get this to you by the end of the week,” was really causing her end of the weeks to be very, very stressful. And so, by creating more rolling deadlines, that really benefited her and freed up her ability to actually meet these deadlines without having them all crash on top of each other at the same time.

Third Strategy: Schedule Emails – 18:45

All right! The third strategy is schedule-sending emails. Now, a lot of people know about this already, so we’re gonna talk more about how to use it. But just to clarify what I mean first is, in a lot of platforms (in Outlook and also in Gmail and I think any others), you can schedule send emails.

So, basically, let’s say you get back on late at night to work. Let’s say if you have kids who go to sleep, you’re working at 9:00 PM, you don’t want to send the email at 9:00 PM, you can still hit send, but you’re schedule-sending it or delay sending it or however it’s phrased to arrive the next day. So that really can help people not get emails at 9:00 PM and feel like they need to respond right away and that kind of stuff. It’s very important to do that if you are a manager so that you’re setting the tone for your own team that just because you might be working at 9:00 PM because it works best for your personal life, you are not putting any pressure on anyone to respond at 9:00 PM.

I will just throw out there that even if you say that to people, if they’re getting emails at 9:00 PM, they feel anxiety around that. They just do. I mean, we all do. It’s very natural. So really embrace the schedule send so that you’re being fair to your own team in that way. But let’s talk about some other ways to do this too.

So any emails that I send on a Friday — and I send a lot of emails on a Friday because I’m going through a Friday planning session, which we’ll talk more about in a later episode. I send a ton of emails on Fridays, but I schedule send them all to go out, typically, (unless it’s a two-minute thing that somebody else needs to do on a Friday) the next week. I sometimes overthink this stuff, but I’ll send it on a Monday at 10:00 AM because then I know they’ve gone through their backlog of email for the weekend and my email comes in right at the top. I will maybe sometimes even do it for Tuesday. If it’s something that can wait and I want someone’s full attention, I might schedule send it for 9:30/10:00 AM on a Tuesday so that it’s not just the chaos of getting back into work on a Monday. We kind of skip that over, and it gets to them on a Tuesday when things are a little bit more settled.

So just throwing out there that that’s an option. If you send a lot of email on Fridays, that can be a really nice way to schedule send emails. Same on the weekend. If you are having to work on the weekend, schedule sending it for the next business day or even the Tuesday like I just said can be really powerful.

Now, we’re talking about, though, for email for you, and you’re like, “Yeah, that’s great but –,” and those strategies are really important, but when it comes to us and how we can manage our own email, I also want to throw this out that this is something a client came up with that I thought was brilliant. I think we’ve all done this where you send those emails out at the end of the day and you feel awesome getting it off your plate, and then you get the boomerang to email back at, like, 6:00 PM, and you’re like, “Ugh, I don’t want this. I don’t want to deal with this right now. I thought I had this off my plate. I just want to enjoy it being off my plate for tonight, please!” And so, what she started doing is any email she sends after 3:00 PM, she delays the send for the next day, and I just thought that was so brilliant because you’re not in danger of the response coming back that night, and it just allows you to really get it off your plate for the whole evening and not worry about seeing it again.

Now, I’ll just throw out there that if you are good at not getting in your email inbox after work, that might not be as critical for you. If you send all your emails, you get off email at 5:00 PM, and you do not look at email again until the next morning, that might be something that you don’t really need to abide by as much. But, again, I work with reality here. I’m a big proponent of time management needs to be realistic. I know in my attorney days, I was really bad at staying off email after work. Again, it was just kind of almost less stressful to know what was in there versus not. I’m not saying that’s right by any means. I’m sure there are mindset strategies I could use to try and stay out of email and understand that better, but that was my reality, and I just knew. So I know that it’s the reality for some people. If that’s you, this strategy of delay sending any emails sent after 3:00 PM, can be incredibly powerful.

The major, major caveat I want to throw out there is (and this is a little bit tricky) that for Outlook desktop users, my understanding from anecdotal client sharing stuff — so this is something I can’t swear by, but it really does seem to be the case. If you are using Outlook desktop app and you delay send an email, it will only actually send it if your Outlook inbox is open. If you delay send for 8:00 AM the next morning, and you want those emails to go out at 8:00 AM the next morning, but you plan on not being at your computer until, let’s say, 10:00 AM two days later because of some sort of vacation or even a deposition or something like that, my understanding is those emails will actually not go out until you open Outlook again.

And so, you need to be really wary of that if you’re using the Outlook desktop app. My understanding is if you use Outlook online, and then if you’re using any sort of Gmail or things like that, those are more cloud-based, and so, if you delay send, they go out whether or not you’re on your computer. But when it’s the desktop app, it’s saved locally, so it’s only gonna go out if you open up that local application.

So I just wanted to really clarify that for people because I just think that’s something that I have heard has burned people a couple of times, and you just need to be aware of that if you want to use the strategy. But I still think it’s brilliant. I think schedule sending emails, again, is huge for being fair to your team, being respectful of people’s time away from the office, not dropping things in late at night, but still allowing you to work when it works best for you. If you need to be working at ten o’clock at night because you left work at three because of kids and that’s what worked best for you, whatever it is, there’s no judgment here. If you need to work at ten o’clock at night, I totally get that. Just use that delay send so that you’re not stressing out your team at the same time, and then use it to avoid those boomerang-around emails that come back a couple of hours later, if you would like to, by delay sending emails until later.

Bonus Tip: Schedule Out Email Processing on Vacations – 24:59

Along those lines, I want to throw out one more bonus tip for ya. For weekends or vacations, if you can completely go off email, awesome! Don’t change that. If you struggle to go completely offline from email on weekends or vacations, I know this sounds weird, but I would encourage you to schedule when you will check and process email to free yourself up the rest of that time from doing it. So that’s just a random little tip to help you. But again, if you can trust that your little phone alert will go off and tell you when to check email at certain times, that frees you up the rest of the time from feeling like you need to be in email in case you, again, forget to check it and miss something that is really important.

So I hope these email strategies help! Remember, it’s the timing of email, protecting time for the amount of time you need, responding without responding in substance, and then schedule sending those emails both to protect your team and to protect yourself. If you have some email strategies that you love, definitely reach out and share them with me. If you are loving this podcast, I would be so, so appreciative if you could leave me a review! That really apparently matters when it comes to how frequently these podcast platforms show your podcast to other people if they want to see ratings. So I would love a rating and a review if you’re so kind, and I really appreciate it! I will see you next time!

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