Email is one of contemporary life’s contradictions: at the same time a wonderful invention and a sure and steady productivity killer. A lot of people say the trick with email is to only do it at specific times, but I disagree. If, like me, you are a full blown email addict and need your hit, time management strategies simply aren’t going to cut it.
What you need is a system.
A 10 minute conversation with my brother in law @mnot early last year turned my email life around. @mnot is pretty smart; someone (whom he he didn’t even know) even wrote a wikipedia page about him. I wish I had had this conversation while I was doing my PhD, so I thought I should share it with you.
1. Doing email is like doing the dishes
The thing @mnot told me is that I needed to develop a new attitude to email. It is a task more like housework than letter writing. Now productivity writers claim that it is wrong to open your email at all before you start on a task, but this doesn’t work for me. Having a full and unattended to inbox is like a dirty kitchen – it’s hard to cook when there’s a mess.
Once I realised this I cultivated two modes of email attention, which I call ‘passing through’ and ‘eating the frogs’. In the passing through mode I aim to handle each new email as lightly as possible move on. If a mail needs more than 2 minutes to read and respond to it gets filed for later attention. This kind of mail is a ‘frog’, which has to be eaten at some point.
The passing through mode is like giving the kitchen what my mother called ‘a surface clean’. Email can be dealt with continuously – even as soon as it comes in – without bogging you down. You can eat the frogs later – at a time which is convenient.
2. It’s about what you do, not who you know
Of course the key to the passing through mode is an easy filing system, primarily so you don’t lose track of what you have dealt with and what is left to do. Previously I had an email filing system related to projects and to people. This meant I had a deep and wide folder structure; it took so long to file anything I wouldn’t bother half the time, so my inbox was always pages long.
@mnot encouraged me to spend time considering what I actually do in my job and develop folders based on this. I ended up with 5 folders instead of 19: ‘candidates’ (for my correspondence with and about PhD students); ‘teaching'; ‘research'; ‘projects’ and ‘admin’. Filing takes less thought now. If I need to find something from a specific person I use the search function on a folder – heaps quicker than scanning by eye.
I created a 5th called ‘pending’ for the frogs.
The pending folder is my ‘to do list’ – which I can choose to enter at a convenient time and start to eat the frogs. The trick with the pending folder is to visit it at least once a day and pick off what you can in the time you have set aside. Slowly but surely, longer term tasks will be dealt with and filed elsewhere. Of course new ones will be constantly added. Accept that the pending folder, unlike your inbox, will always have stuff in it.
4. Use your electronic calendar
There are two main reasons a mail takes more than 2 minutes and becomes a frog. Either I have to think about it and write a longer mail, or there are actions arising out of the mail. The frogs I have to think about sit in the pending folder for as long as it takes; for the action orientated frogs I use my calendar.
I’ve had an electronic calendar of some sort or other for years and years, but never really used it. When I started being a thesis whisperer (ie: gainfully employed) people started to use it to book me to speak, or consult and I started to respect its power. Now I use it to write notes to my future self about actions arising from emails. I plant the notes on the days I plan to do that task or get back to someone about something. Then I can delete or file the frog.
5. Develop a terse, yet friendly email style
Many people don’t know how to write effective emails. This probably a topic for another time, but I think it’s worth mentioning here that emails should be as brief as possible. Try to say what you want from the person, or would like them to do, within the first line or two. I usually write quite abrupt emails. This is contrary to my urge to be polite, but I write for a living and only have so many words per day to spend on emails. As a compromise I tend to use smileys and exclamation marks at times, to give a sense of a person behind the words.
So that’s all there is to it grasshoppers. Of course there are some days I have to spend more time on email than I would like, but at least the task is simplified. My system works for me and @mnot – what works for you?