Gertrude Stein wrote in a 1946 essay: "Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense." This was long before electronic mail had been imagined, but her words are prophetic, particularly to how email is used in business settings. The convenience of sending instant memorandums at work has been bastardized to a ridiculous level, and if you're like the average office worker, you're bogged down trying to balance substantial assignments with virtual communication.
[See: 12 Common Work Email Mistakes.]
To get you on the road to email productivity – or recovery, depending on how you'd like to look at things – follow this 12-step program:
Step 1. Set priorities. Many of us spend workdays in reactionary mode to the demands of our inbox, stopping and starting larger assignments to attend to menial requests transmitted through email. It's important to adjust your routine. "We're constantly turning our agenda over to someone else instead of setting our own priorities," says Tony Schwartz, president, founder and CEO of The Energy Project, a firm dedicated to helping organizations and companies build more engaged workforces.
The first step to setting priorities is to compose a day's to-do list the night before. "For a lot of people who do creative work especially, they need time to dig into the process. But think of the time wasted just by composing a to-do list each morning," says Jocelyn K. Glei, director and editor-in-chief of the 99U series, which includes the books "Manage Your Day-to-Day" and "Maximize Your Potential."
Step 2. Work in focus blocks. Stop multitasking, and instead think of the items on each day's to-do list in terms of blocks of time. In addition to cordoning off periods to finish serious work that requires more concentration, you should devote time blocks to handling basics like sifting through email. Glei advises to begin each day with your heavy-lifting tasks. "A lot of time is wasted starting out focusing in on your email," she says. "I'd personally recommend not checking email for the first two hours, just to see what impact it has on your work."
Step 3. Draw up a VIP list. Sometimes you shouldn't keep your boss waiting or expect others to work in the same time blocks that you do. For this reason, Glei suggests you have a VIP list of colleagues or clients whose correspondence you're willing to attend to immediately. Remember two things: One, keep your list exclusive for those who truly need an immediate response, and two, shuffle your VIPs regularly according to necessity.
Step 4. Don't bring portable devices to meetings. Fight the fear of missing out and keep your sticky fingers away from your phone's keypad during meetings. The best solution is to stop bringing smartphones to conference rooms altogether. "It's no different from going on a diet and ridding yourself of the foods you shouldn't eat," Schwartz says. "If the foods are there, you're going to eat them. If you keep hearing that beep or a light flashing for new mail, you're going to respond." Reserve your energy and attention for the meeting's agenda instead.
Step 5. Share your calendars and use email rules liberally. Software like Outlook and Gmail offer options to share folders and calendars, so use them to keep your co-workers and clients updated on your whereabouts and availability to check email. "We're so transparent now with our time thanks to the shared calendar, but use it to alert others to when you're having a designated focus block where you shouldn't be disturbed," Glei says. Also compose detailed email rules for the extended periods when you won't check email – whether it's vacation, the weekend or even while in the office focusing on other projects. Provide contact information for any alternate staff who may handle pressing matters, and that might cut down on additional mail clogging your box.
Step 6. But be conservative with the other email features. Think carefully before you fill out the carbon copy (Cc:) field with those who don't actually need the information you're sending or who might misinterpret your meaning. You may start a Reply All round-robin that takes you off course.