email: just like normal mail but …

… well, it is just like normal mail and we should treat it the same way.

As far as productivity hacks go, the one thing I did that changed how I work is re-conceptualise email as a process of sending and receiving, you know, actual letters.

When I think about how I deal with the physical mail in my life, it dawned on me that treating email differently works against my goal of being productive and on top of things. Like a lot of people who complain about drowning in the email flood, I seemed always to be at the mercy of incoming email. It always found me at the most inconvenient times and it seemed that if I didn’t deal with it then and there, then I was not getting anywhere.

Of course now I recognise this as idiotic and I try to be smarter about how I deal with email (I have a whole bunch of email ‘hacks’ that I use which I’ll be posting up later), but the one that ties them all together is this:

I now treat email as if it was physical mail. I think about it in the same ways and I action it as if it was a physical letter.

This realisation translates into a few basic rules:

writing and sending email

  1. Writing email is a distinct and separate act. I can write email whenever I like – just like a letter – and I don’t have to look at the rest of my unopened mail to do so. Writing email is not dependent on any other task or action.
  2. I don’t have to send email right away. I can send it whenever I like. In fact, if I have a few emails (letters) that I have written, I can send them all at once by gathering them together and taking a walk to the local post box. The digital equivalent of this is drafting an email in something like TextEdit and then saving it, getting back to what I was working on before and waiting until the time arrives that I have set aside to deal with all my email at once (see below).
  3. Since I can’t control when a letter gets delivered and I have no idea when the recipient will get around to reading that letter, I shouldn’t expect an immediate reply. Letter writing and delivery and having the letter read is an asynchronous activity. It can take time and it involves more than one person who autonomously makes decisions about how they work with their letters. Email is also an asynchronous activity that also involves more than one person making decisions about their own workflow.
  4. Which means: I don’t use email for urgent matters. If I need to get in contact with someone else quickly, I use some other method that will reach them then and there. The test for whether it is important or not is this: If it is that urgent that it can’t wait, it had also better be that important that it warrants me deliberately interrupting someone else’s attention. Since I hate other people interrupting me with non-urgent requests, I make sure I don’t do it to others.
  5. I send the least amount of email I possibly can. If I want to ask a colleague something and it can wait, instead of writing an email I’ll jot down the question in a notebook and the next time we bump into each other I’ll ask the question then. Writing the question down gets it out of my head (which has its own benefits) and not sending email in the first place reduces the overall volume I have to deal with.

reading and answering email

  1. Reading email is a distinct and separate act. I can read email whenever I like – just like a letter. It makes sense, then, to be in the right frame of mind and have some dedicated time to reading email. Since I don’t know in advance what my email might contain, I deliberately set aside some time to thoughtfully read and respond. Therefore:
  2. Just like physical mail, I batch process my reading and responding to email.
  3. Since email is an asynchronous method of communication, it is unreasonable for others to expect me to read it as soon as they send it. Just because the act of sending is instantaneous, that doesn’t mean that I open my email client (the equivalent of walking down to the letter box or post office to see if anything has arrived) at the start of the day and then keep getting up from my work to go down and check it multiple times during the day.
  4. I check email once per day. At 2pm. This is known as the #2pmProject. If you are interested in seeing how a few of us use this, you can do a #2pmProject search on Twitter.
  5. To send or respond to email generally means more email comes back towards me so if email doesn’t need a response, I don’t respond. For example, if a departmental email comes around asking for people to volunteer for a particular committee and I can’t accept, I don’t respond with a “Sorry, I can’t do it and here’s my excuse” email, I just simply don’t respond at all. The writing of the excuse email is a waste of my time and the recipient doesn’t want to know why I can’t do it, they just want to know who can do it.

Reconceptualising email as a physical object has helped me to understand how it is that email flows towards me and how it moves away from me. It also highlights the important role that I play in managing, reducing or increasing that flow. By mentally adding ‘timing’ to each stage of the email process I now think about it not as something that is urgent and has to be done right now, but something that can be slotted into my day at a time that is right for me and my workflow.

If you find yourself struggling with email and feel that you are always reacting to email and not getting anything done, take a moment to re-imagine email as a physical object and ask yourself the following question:

What would happen if I waited to deal with email at a time that suited me?