We each start our day with good intentions. We want to get things done, help people, and make progress toward our big goals. To do this, most of us depend on other people for information, collaboration, and approval. We can either do this work synchronously or asynchronously. Our number one tool for working synchronously is the meeting – which can be in-person, via video, or via phone. Regardless of environment, synchronous work requires us to align our schedules and be present with each other at the same time.
But what about asynchronous work? This is everything that we pass back and forth between co-workers on our own time schedule and thanks to the laptop, we can do this from anywhere. This type of work ranges from shared document editing, presentation creation, to Teams or Slack message responses. This is also e-mail. Yet with e-mail, we treat our inbox as a work management system instead of the asynchronous collaboration tool that it is.
Why do we open our inboxes in the morning and leave them there onscreen all day?
1) Our calendar is usually a part of the same program and we need to have that close at hand.
2) We want to be seen as responsive and answer incoming messages as they roll in.
3) And if we’re really being honest, we like that we can feel productive during boring meetings as we scroll, read, and reply instead of being fully engaged.
Each time we click over to our e-mail program, we get a little hit of dopamine when we see there’s something new to read. And for these reasons, we begin our work days with e-mail.
Sidebar – I’m not here to rail against this. Given the total amount of hours in your day you are devoting to this specific tool, to tell you to go cold turkey and not to look at it at the start of your day is not going to give you the productivity boost you’re seeking.
So instead of spending all your precious morning minutes deep in the inbox, think of your first visit to the inbox as a process sprint.
It’s like making your bed.
- Is this the best use of your time in the morning? Probably not.
- Could you be doing something more productive? Sure.
- Does the daily habit of an initial accomplishment give you fuel for the day? Yes, it can!
Doing an e-mail processing sprint in the morning can be the “clear the cobwebs” accomplishment you need first thing in the AM. It can build momentum. It can alert you to urgent matters that may need your attention ahead of what you had planned for the day. But it shouldn’t be home base!
Imagine after making your bed, you just stayed in your room straightening things up, folding laundry, smoothing the sheets, dusting the dressers, grabbing empty hangers out of the closet. Wait WHAT? That sounds bananas. No, you’ve got to get to work! Once the bed is made, we move on. Same goes for our inbox, once you’ve processed it, move on!
I know it feels like we’re doing stuff as the window sits open while you keep reading, you delete, you reply, you reread what you read yesterday hoping for someone else to reply first. Regardless of the amount of time you spend “doing e-mail”, it’s a false measure of productivity. It’s a tool and not your job. So finish the slide deck and hit send. Schedule the meeting that’s been on your to-do list, create the draft and circulate for feedback. Progress will happen, but only when you use your tools correctly.
Need some concreate tips for how to do this? Start with these 4 actions taken from my course on E-mail Minimalism:
- Touch it once – every e-mail your read, your mind actually solved for the next action, so why not take it? Not enough time now? Then schedule it.
- Batch process – plan 3-4 times a day when you’re going to process your e-mail. This isn’t scanning for sharks, it’s processing. Do it, delete it, delegate it, defer it, reply. The goal is not zero, the goal is to uncover the urgent and important that gets stuck underneath the unimportant. If you’re taking action on the important, the unimportant will naturally sink to the bottom, where you can choose to tackle them on your next transcon flight.
- Use your schedule to set your priorities – not your inbox.
- Skip the complex folder system – it you need or want to keep something, put in in ONE folder.
While it feels like there’s plenty out of our control these days, how you engage with your work tools is one area you have complete control over. Let your inbox help you, remember that it’s an asynchronous tool, but don’t let it dominate your work day.