The Email Enemy: Kicking The Addiction That Society Encourages – Forbes
It’s never been easier or more difficult to be productive. Such a paradox makes sense when you consider an event that happened just 10 years ago: the introduction of the smartphone. This revolutionary step forward in communication was simultaneously a mammoth step backward for our mental health. It also became the bane of existence for my client, Kelly.
When Kelly and I began working together, she had been facing the biggest challenge of her career in the form of lost days spent managing her inbox. Her job positioned her as the main recipient of incoming requests for a team of over 100 salespeople, which kept her swimming in a constant flood of email. The rise of the smartphone only compounded her predicament, as she was now compelled to correspond even when away from her desk. At times, she felt actual panic, as if the undertow was dragging her helplessly out to sea.
Kelly’s feeling of being out of control can be chemically likened to being high on drugs. The anticipation and emotional rush associated with email stimulates the dopamine-fueled reward system in all of us. The very same pleasure centers in your brain that are triggered by using cocaine are lit up when you obsessively check your inbox. In fact, your inbox has the potential to be much more dangerous in that, unlike cocaine use, which is generally discouraged in society, digital connectivity is necessary to be part of society.
Do these habits sound familiar to you? To better manage your time around email tasks, here are some questions to consider:
1. What response time expectations does your boss have?
Many of you, like Kelly did, would probably say “immediately.” But is that rule implied or stated? First, go back to the drawing board and determine that expectation. Once this is clear, you can begin to strategize.
2. Are all messages in your inbox equally as urgent?
When you attempt to give every incoming message your immediate attention, you are locking yourself into a lifestyle of habitual follow-up. This never ends well, as it only serves to feed your email addiction. As Kelly started to realize she was unnecessarily treating every message as urgent, a lightbulb turned on. Her role of providing crucial support to her team did not equate to the suicide hotline. So, with her boss’s guidance and her renewed definition of urgency, Kelly got comfortable with closing down her inbox for an hour at a time, scanning for urgent messages at the top of each hour. When the occasional urgent request or inquiry arrived, Kelly could spend time addressing just that. This freed up time for her to work on goal-oriented projects.
When Kelly did devote herself to email, it was for one hour at a time — during which it was her sole task. Her focus was to read, respond and file each message, trying her best to only touch each message once. Try applying this technique to your career role, even if it’s not nearly as demanding as Kelly’s. You might be amazed by the results.
3. Have you set your boundaries with coworkers?
In a team environment, we all realize sooner rather than later that even our most well-intentioned colleagues can fall into innocent habits that end up chipping away our time. In many of these scenarios, boundaries need to be set. The trick is to do so in a cleverly subtle manner that avoids a confrontational subtext while also working effectively the first time.
Kelly’s epiphany in this department came when we analyzed recurring themes in her email repository. She soon pinpointed the trend of her colleagues checking in on the progress she was making with their requests. After all, they needed everything yesterday, too. Kelly creatively devised a gentle and helpful way to curb their nudging. Upon receipt of a request, as she added bullets to her to-do list, she would reply to the requester with a date of when they could expect her efforts to arrive in their inbox. Boundaries set, problem solved.
4. Are you deliberate about detox?
The next step for Kelly was a doozy. Since she now soberly understood how email had been bombarding her brain, she agreed to unplug when she wasn’t at work. We decided it would be beneficial to introduce this detox in stages. I knew from past experience that when learning to unplug, quitting cold turkey would not fly. The first baby step was giant: When she was at home with her young kids, she would remain digital device-free. Next, she conceded to resisting email first thing in the morning — the inbox was off limits until she was on the train. She could then use the one-hour commute as her first block of email time.
The icing on the cake is that now, on Friday evenings, after posting her out-of-office message informing senders that she would return to her desk at 9 a.m. on Monday, she can pack that pesky phone away and not give it a second thought until Sunday evening. That’s when she gives herself 90 minutes after tucking the kids into bed to get a head start on the coming week. She has noticed that as she digs into this head start, she feels refreshed and focused instead of frenzied and flustered.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, spending less time with your inbox can allow you to get more out of your time. It’s just one of those delightful mysteries that have now become a little less mysterious.