Email control: how to manage email on holiday and at work

Have you ever complained about having too many emails, when 80% of your inbox consists of newsletters you've signed up to? I have. It's a cheeky excuse for spending half a day sifting through Outlook when you return to work after a holiday, not getting a bit of work done.

Email is one of the most useful inventions ever. Many of us couldn't work without it. But it can take over our lives and get in the way of doing good work.

So in order to enjoy a happy, healthy working life, we need to understand our relationship with email, and occasionally, shake things up a bit. Here are some ways to think differently about work email.


Changing your email mindset

“Email is broken. Or, more precisely, email has broken us. On a regular basis it inspires hatred, guilt, anxiety, anger, and despair. The very last thing we think about when we think about email is its utility. And yet we know it’s a useful and necessary part of our everyday lives."

Jocelyn Glei starts his book Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done with a harsh reality check on the nature of office emails. Her theory is that email should be our tool, not our master. Too many of us are happy to sink into reactive mode, with our attention pinged around like a pinball when emails come in from every direction.

And checking email is addictive. Our lizard brains enjoy a little dose of neurochemical excitement when we see the (1) appear next to the red envelope.

On a slot machine, you never know what the result will be when you pull the lever, and the flashing lights along with that slightly delayed result fires up our pleasure chemicals nicely. With email, it's the same. Opening an email that might contain entertainment, praise, or a new business deal? Can be pretty exciting. Makes you want to check it more and more.

But that compulsion to check your inbox can waste time and ruin your concentration. So how about doing things a bit differently?

Managing email in the office

Let's start at the start: mornings. Jocelyn Glei highlights the absurdities of checking your email first thing in the morning:

"...it’s usually counter-productive to start your day by letting other people’s demands set your priorities."

Although it seems the obvious thing to do, making incoming email your priority is a sort of admission that you don't know what you need to be doing at the start of the day. If you set yourself up to be reactive from the day's outset, it's difficult to properly plan your day, and carve out time for the things that you really need to do.

So, let's get proactive. Cal Newport suggests scheduling email-checking time in advance. His theory of Deep Work (the opposite of Shallow Work) is all about making time for periods of deep concentration without interruption. That goes for email as well as messing about on phones and social networks. He reckons you should do your most mentally demanding work first thing, and then take a 'distraction break' to check the inbox.

This can be helped by disabling notifications (so you only see new emails when you decide to open your inbox) or using a tool like RescueTime which tracks the amount of time you spend on websites and apps. When you realise you're spending 2 hours a day surfing your inbox, it's a great incentive to stop.

It's also a good idea to unsubscribe from almost everything. Seems excessive, but if you're like me, you probably get emails from shoe shops that you only end up buying from 1% of the time. With the rest, you spend time and mental energy scanning through, before deciding to send it to the bin. Long-term, that's a lot of time wasted. Unsubscribe.

Managing email while away from work

We know email is addictive. That's why so many of us can't quite switch off when we're taking time off work. But this can be changed with a savvy bit of preparation.

Here are a few things to consider before you leave the office:

  • Decide in advance what needs to be replied to. What constitutes an emergency?
  • Delegate as much as you can before you leave. Who can deal with issues in your absence?
  • Remove email from your phone (or at least the notifications) and let people know that you're doing it, so they don't expect an immediate response.
  • Set your out-of-office autoresponder to let people know you'll be unavailable.
  • Decide what you should be doing instead of email. Pause for a moment and think about what's meaningful. If it really is important, you shouldn't have an issue switching off the notifications for a while and getting on with things.

Remember: you're out of the office for a reason. Rest is the goal.

"We misunderstand the relationship between work and rest. Work and rest are not polar opposites… Rest is not work’s adversary. Rest is work’s partner. They complement and complete each other." - Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

You need to make time to switch off if you want to do good work when you come back, and you can't call it a holiday if you're still checking your emails.

So - make email your tool, not your master. Instead of becoming a human network router, constantly sending and receiving messages like a switchboard operator, make email work for you, and working life will become a lot less frantic.

Title Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash