Francis Wade | The science of surviving large volumes of email
It's likely that you are facing a rapid increase in the number of email messages you receive. What should you do in the future if you decided to take on a new project or accept a promotion? How will you cope then?
The solution isn't to avoid email. Some people tell others: 'I'm not good with email', 'Call me instead' or 'I don't have time for email'. Some just lie 'I didn't get your message'. All these responses are fast becoming signs of incompetence.
However, it's not our fault. We were never taught how to manage large numbers of incoming messages. In the absence of proper training, most of us defaulted to snail-mail techniques. In the post office world, mail is meant to be read slowly, leisurely and passively. It's an approach that worked when you received 20 or 30 email messages per week. Now, as you approach the average of global 150 messages per day, it fails because it just doesn't scale. Here is a way that you can cope.
The real problem triggers. The first realisation is that the problem isn't the number of bits and bytes hurtling at you via email in cyberspace. It's your response to the triggers lying within each message that creates an issue.
To explain, we read email, looking for triggers for new time demands, that is, self-generated tasks. This conversion is normal, but it's a mechanism you can manage.
What you can't control is the number of incoming messages. By design, your email address is an open invitation to the general public to send you an infinite number of potential triggers. This has created a problem over time.
Today, you are probably trying to process large numbers of messages using the same techniques you used to process small numbers. Now, you are faced with a scaling error which can only be avoided by learning to switch between two different modes of thinking and feeling.
Mode one scepticism, deletion and emptying: This is the mode to adopt when you first open your Inbox. It's one of sprinting, as you empty your Inbox as fast as possible. To help focus your attention, use a kitchen timer with a loud ticking sound it will help you stay in the ultra-focused state that's required.
As you process each message, imagine acting like a sceptical, rigid quality inspector at the end of a production line. Your job would be to accept only a handful of items, continuing until the last one has been processed. In factories, there's only a single exception allowed. If you discover a bona fide emergency that risks a loss of life, limb or property, then you can stop everything, rectifying the situation before production is resumed, taking as little time as possible.
In the case of email, you should also pause to handle emergencies. Once handled, return to your sprint to process and remove all the messages out of your Inbox as fast as you can.
You should opt for one of the following:
If an email has no triggers, immediately delete the item or save it to your archives, far outside your Inbox.
If it includes a valid trigger (and, therefore, passes your inspection), also remove it from your Inbox. Store it safely for later execution in Mode Two in one of the following ways. Either add it to a To-Do List, put it in your calendar, give it your auto-scheduler or store important information in the right database (such as an address book.)
At the end of this mode, your email Inbox is empty.
Take not that the technique of leaving email messages in your Inbox, marking them as unread, only works for small volumes.
Mode two thoughtful action on your time demands: In mode two, you are no longer sprinting. Now, you can execute delayed time demands which were safely stored.
As you do so, notice that the act of completing time demands relieves stress. This occurs because it rids us of the nagging feeling that something is incomplete, a phenomenon psychologists call the Zeigarnik Effect. The two-mode approach works to alleviate that feeling because recent research shows that it also disappears when you manage your time demands well.
To keep stress away, you must commit to entering mode one on a scheduled basis, rather than randomly. Turning off your PC, tablet or smartphone's email reminders is a start.
Another technique is to stay in mode one as long as you can, without being distracted by non-emergencies such as Facebook or the news. This ensures that all potential triggers have been handled, relieving you of the Zeigarnik Effect.
Let colleagues know you are answering email on a schedule. If someone insists on immediate responses, politely hand them a copy of my June 12, 2012, Gleaner article: 'How executives unwittingly turn employees into morons".
Handling large numbers of email has now become a matter of professional competence. Sound techniques are the only solution to a challenge that will never go away.
n Francis Wade is the author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity', a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a free summary of links to his past articles, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org