2 myths that impact how you work with email

I don’t like the idea of 1 size fits all. I can understand how 1 size could apply to many but we’re too unique as individuals for it to be applied to everyone. For instance, I doubt a 1 size fits all baseball cap is the right size an entire family. It will fit some members of the family, but it’s probably too small for someone’s head (ok that’s me!!!), while being too big for someone else.

I think the same logic applies to how we work in that concepts need to be tailored to how the individual does their best work. Email management is an area where I see conventional wisdom being relevant for only 70% of the workforce. That’s fine if you’re like the majority, but not so if you’re in the 30% where the recommended techniques aren’t making you more productive because they either don’t align with your personal workstyle or the requirements of your job. Don’t get me wrong, to maximise productivity you need a defined system in how you’ll manage emails, but be wary of 1 size fits all approaches.

There’s 2 myths about email that don’t apply to everyone. What we’re led to believe is we’re more productive if we have:

  • An empty inbox
  • Only check your email 2 or 3 times a day

My current views on this are contradictory to every time management course I’ve attended and contrary to what my own beliefs were 5 years ago. How I’ve come to this conclusion is from seeing real life examples over the past 18 months of people in the workforce who are really effective at what they do while I’ve been consulting in productivity and email management. What I observed was there was a percentage of the workforce who had hundreds of emails in their inbox and checked their emails every hour but they were just as productive as those who had zero emails or only scanned for new emails 2 or 3 times a day. When I saw this repeatedly I began to realise:

  • It’s not the number of emails in your inbox – the bigger issue is your inbox is not an action list ie. it’s not a reminder system of outstanding work. Scheduling outstanding work in your email calendar and reminders via the task functionality has a greater impact to getting your work done in a timely manner. This point is significant for how to manage your email workflow.

I have to add that I’m part of the 70% who prefer an empty inbox for my work emails as I make a connection between a crowded inbox with workload (I realise this is just a perception I have but it helps me with clarity). Therefore, if an empty inbox is working for you then stay with this approach.

I’ve seen situations where time management practitioners have explained how workers haven’t been able to maintain an empty inbox because they didn’t have the discipline to follow the system. And sometimes that’s true. However, I believe the most popular reason is they didn’t see value in having an empty inbox and therefore they didn’t build it into their day to day habits. The point is an empty inbox doesn’t have to be aspirational for everyone if you are productive by using the search functionality quickly to find emails.

  • There’s alternatives to checking emails only 2 - 3 times a day – email is just a tool to help you do your job and not your job so it’s inefficient to spend too much time working in your inbox. A study from the University of British Columbia found the average person checks their email 15 times a day. The concept of checking your emails in batches only 2 or 3 times a day is considered as a really effective email management technique. However, this isn’t frequent enough for quite a number of jobs in dynamic environments. Your manager or customers can impact how timely you need to be in scanning for new emails. Alternatively, checking email 10 – 20 times an hour (yes some people do!!!) is way too unproductive.

The happy medium I’ve seen for numerous workers is to check their emails once an hour. This isn’t for everyone and if 2 or 3 times a day satisfies your requirements then keep doing it, but once an hour can provide the necessary balance in helping to keep the work moving and actioning the important parts of your job in environments where email is central to communication. The key point is batching emails helps productivity, but don’t get too constrained that 2 or 3 times a day needs to be set in stone. 

Build your rhythm

A McKinsey Global Institute found the average knowledge worker spends 28% of the time processing emails. If you feel overwhelmed in managing your emails then don’t be afraid to try different approaches - play with it a bit as 1 size doesn’t fit all. If you’re not confident in doing this yourself then get some help to steer you in the right direction. When you find a rhythm that suits you, you’ll be more effective at processing emails but importantly you’ll have more time to focus on the real work of your job. You might be surprised how making the right refinements can make a huge difference to your day and your effectiveness.