A few weeks back I read The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. This is a great book if you are interested in traveling the world and/or becoming more efficient, but the biggest take-away I had was regarding my email inbox. I realized:
Looking at your email inbox is not a form of productivity.
While this seems obvious, you can easily get wrapped up in emails and lose track of what you are doing. Email can be very practical, but it is typically not used in an optimal manner.
How Email is Used in Corporate America
In the past almost 3 years of experience in Corporate America I have noticed something: email is a way for people to stay busy and feel like they are making an impact. Employees at my company and other companies send and receive emails just to appear busy and “productive.” But are you actually adding value by being on email? There are a lot of emails that are completely worthless to send, such as:
- Figuring out a time to meet
- Attempting to make decisions
- Arguing/bantering/making counter-points
All of these activities are important and need to be done, but email is so easy and convenient to hide behind. If you need to figure out a time to meet, leverage Microsoft Outlook’s calendar feature where you can see what times are available on others’ calendars. If you want to make a decision, call someone or walk over and talk to them in person. Same goes if you want to make a counter point to someone. Doing so over email is just going to create more emails
Email is also used as a way to hold conversations, which is not the right medium for that purpose. There is an expectation from a lot of people that when they send an email they will get a response in the next 10-15 minutes. If you are truly expecting an immediate response, pick up the phone or talk to them in person. By doing this, you are not only being more productive and making a faster decision, but you are also creating a connection with that person by interacting with them in a more personalized manner.
Use of email is not all bad, as it is sometimes used appropriately. There are many times where a document needs to be shared and the best way to do that is via email. Additionally, documenting meeting agenda and next steps is an effective way of using email for recording purposes. For the most part, however, email is abused and overused.
How Email is Used as an Undergrad
Email as an undergrad is much simpler than in Corporate America. It is not a time-wasting tool, rather it is a way to exchange information digitally. If you need to send a professor an upcoming presentation, you do so via email. You do not communicate with your professor via email just to communicate and waste time.
As an undergrad email is used more for its actual purpose - to send and receive messages. You don’t send emails just for the sake of sending them. Rather, you send them with a purpose. When you are done going through your inbox and replying to messages, you stop looking at your inbox and move on. It is that simple. So, why should this change once you move to Corporate America?
My Experiment with Email
Over the past few weeks I have been hyper-focused on how much time I spend looking at my emails and when I look at my inbox. As part of this experiment, I blocked off two 30-minute periods (9:30 AM and 3:30 PM) to look at and send emails. While I decided to jump right in and go for it, I did have some concerns:
- I won’t have enough time to sift through and respond to my emails
- I don’t want to have the perception that I wasn’t doing my work because I wasn’t responding to emails
- What if I miss something important?
What I’ve found as a result of this (admittedly, short) experiment is none of my concerns proved to be valid. I receive between 60-80 emails every day, which means I have a minute or less to spend on each email. But, what I did not realize is that most of these emails are not that important. A lot of them are attempts to figure out meeting times, make counter points, system-generated emails, or other time-wasting emails. So I started skimming them to look for my name. If someone calls my name out directly, I’ll look into it more closely, otherwise I move to the next email. This allows me to find the important emails that I can quickly respond to in an efficient manner.
I had previously been someone that responded to emails within 10-15 minutes of them hitting my inbox, so my concern about perception was valid. As a result of only checking email twice a day, there has been no noticeable shift in my perception. People really don’t look that closely at the time between sending an email and receiving the follow up, so long as it is within reason. Plus, I am still able to follow up with all the important emails that require my attention.
What if I miss something important? This was a big concern for me. In reality, what are the chances that there is going to be a major crisis or other important event that happens sometime throughout the day? Very slim. If there is and it is something that action needs to be taken on immediately, email is not the right channel for that message. A phone call or in person discussion ought to take place for important events that require immediate action.
As a result of this experiment, I have freed up 4-5 hours of my day. 4-5 HOURS A DAY. That is 20-25 hours each week. Seriously. I was shocked how much time I spent interacting with email prior to designating time to go through my inbox. This allows me to spend time engaging in value-adding activities and starting projects that impact the bottom line.
Email doesn’t impact the bottom line and should not be treated as if it does.
CSU Email Challenge
I encourage you to take on the CSU Email Challenge. Block off two 30-minute sessions at some point throughout your day to focus on email and avoid it at all costs the rest of the day. I’m sure you are thinking “that would never work for me” or “I have too many meetings.” But the reality is, you can do it and you do have enough time. There is no harm in trying it even for just a week to see how it goes. I am sure you’d be amazed how much extra time you have if you think of email as a form of communication as opposed to a way of getting work done.
If you take on the CSU Email Challenge, shoot us a message and let us know how it goes or send us a tweet and tag it with #CSUEmailChallenge.
This Fast Company article is a great supplement to this blog post. It talks about how a group of employees completely gave up email for an entire week. The end result? Check out the article for more details, but (spoiler alert) everything worked out just fine, if not better.
- How many emails do you send and receive on a given day?
- How would you classify the majority of the emails you send and receive each day (setting up meetings, making decision, etc.)?