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Francis Wade | Controlling email flow can transform your company

Published:Friday | December 16, 2016 | 12:00 AM

In most companies, email means more than having a messaging app on your computer. Its ubiquitous nature, plus its tendency to be addictive has turned it into a productivity killer most people abhor.

Gaining control has become more than a personal choice for individual benefit - it's a matter of boosting corporate capacity.

Readers of this column may know that controlling one's environment is a skill that's essential to high productivity in the digital age. Visual distractions, audible disruptions, and haptic alerts are the modern contrivances of clever designers, intent on pulling your attention away at random times.

Email is no exception. It exerts a unique influence due to its central role as a communication medium used by all companies. It cannot be avoided: all professionals must teach themselves to cope with ever-increasing volumes of email if they hope to grow their business or ascend the corporate ladder.

Unfortunately, as I have explained in prior columns, most don't cope very well at all. Using stale techniques, they struggle, falling short of expectations. The evidence? Inboxes filled with thousands of unprocessed messages.

A few try to keep up by remaining hyper-alert to every notification, checking for new messages over 100 times per day. It's called a FOMO or fear of missing out. By contrast, the best alternative is to shift to batch processing: going through all your messages a few times per day, emptying the inbox each time. Here are three steps that may help you implement these two difficult changes.


Step 1 - Learn how to control your personal flow of messages


One way to gain control is to avoid checking your email outside pre-scheduled times. To stay focused, turn off all email-related notifications so that you aren't tempted to break the practice.

To help accomplish this discipline, use software to pause email downloads between visits. In Outlook, this trick is achieved by hitting Ctrl+Alt+S. Up pops a screen with each account displayed. Select the ones you use, and un-tick the setting for 'Schedule an automatic send/receive every [x] minutes'. Now, when you revisit your inbox to process messages, hit the send/receive button and all your unread email will be downloaded in a single batch.

If you are a Gmail user an add-on such as 'inbox pause' can be used to the same end. In either case, you may discover a new ability to focus on the task at hand. How can you maintain it?


Step 2 - Start to Manage Your Mind


Many of my productivity trainees argue that their notifications cannot possibly be turned off. Repeating the same arguments, they announce the need to be available to respond to a possible 'emergency'.

As proof, they cite stories of instances when they picked up an important, urgent message and avoided a disaster. It's all the proof that's needed, in their eyes.

Unfortunately, they are committing a cognitive error called the 'availability heuristic'. It implies that an action which works once shouldn't necessarily become a regular habit. According to several studies, being hyper-responsive to electronic notifications carries a tremendous cost.

Once you decide to turn off notifications in order to focus, you must learn to manage your mind by not falling prey to a FOMO. If your anxiety won't go away, I recommend techniques, such as meditation or Byron Katies' '4-Question + a Turnaround' technique.

However, in the typical company, these personal changes are not enough; you must involve other people.


Step 3 - Launch a Movement


By far, the biggest obstacle to overcoming this problem is one that's social. In a prior article I showed that it's maddeningly easy to destroy the productivity of others: Just insist that people respond immediately to urgent email.

This ties up untold amounts of attention as people check their inboxes over and over again, just in case something important happens to have just arrived. This wasteful habit is made worse by the fact that some 10-15 per cent of messages get lost in cyberspace.

The problem that gets created affects people at all levels, so your movement must include them. Don't waste time looking for a single person no individual ever owns this issue. Instead, become the educator-in-chief even as you look for people who are already implementing the right solution: insisting that other channels be used for urgent communication instead of email. Encourage them to make the switch, even as they gain control over their inbox.

Even though this may make sense, be aware that things won't change overnight. Although the problem is widespread, your real enemy is not people, but their ignorance. As such, be prepared to act as a lonely voice of reason until you can build a critical mass. Only then can you join others who have also produced this transformation which, in the end, benefits everyone.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email