Your biggest problem with e-mail may not be the stream of messages floating into your inbox 24 hours a day. Your biggest problem is probably your mind, and the limiting beliefs you have developed about what is proper and improper in an age of electronic correspondence.
Steve Scott, a New Jersey-based Internet entrepreneur who has taken recently to writing a series of Kindle books about habits, says in Declutter Your Inbox that "getting a handle on your inbox starts before you check e-mail. … to end every day with a clear conscience, you'll need to address the underlying psychology behind how you view e-mail."
The following misguided beliefs, he says, limit your ability to do your best work:
1. You must be constantly available
You are interconnected with others 24 hours a day and feel obliged to be readily available. But Mr. Scott finds his best work – and he suspects yours as well – comes during periods of isolation, when you're focused on an important task. In his experience, too many people check e-mail far more than necessary. His guideline is that if you receive fewer than 20 messages a day, don't check your inbox more than once a day; with 20 to 50 e-mails, restrain yourself to no more than three times daily. If you receive a high volume of messages or your success truly hinges on timely e-mail responses, then four or five times a day is sensible.
2. It's ill-mannered not to reply
We were taught as youngsters that if someone contacts us, it's polite to respond. "We feel the world will come crashing down if we don't respond in 20 minutes [to e-mail]," he said in an interview. But he asks you to flip your mindset: It's rude to start a conversation if someone is busy or is in the middle of another conversation. Essentially that's what e-mail does. It interrupts. Accept the following idea: E-mail interactions should happen when both parties are ready to fully engage in the conversation.
3. Short e-mails are rude
You can trim your e-mail time if you keep your messages short. But that seems rude, and even more impolite if someone has sent you a lengthy e-mail, which seems to beg for an equivalent response. Again, flip the mindset and consider that lengthy e-mails as disrespectful of another's time. "In a way, you are being polite by responding to the point," he said.
4. The priorities of others are more important
Behind the urge to respond immediately can lurk an unconscious belief that the other person's priorities, as expressed in the e-mail, are vital. But you have your own priorities, and in most cases, they are more important. Mr. Scott points to the matrix made popular by author Stephen Covey, in which tasks are assigned according to whether they are urgent or important. The other person's e-mail might seem urgent, but focus on what's important to you.
5. Your inbox can serve as your to-do list
We fall into the trap of leaving e-mails in our inbox as a reminder to act on them. That creates stress and anxiety every time we glance at the messages. "It's the worst way to run a to-do list. Instead, write any task coming from the e-mail on your to-do list. You don't want a scattered to-do list. You want a central location," Mr. Scott said.
Once you shed these limiting beliefs, he urges you to adopt the following habits:
Schedule e-mail processing times in accordance with his guidelines and process e-mails in batches, which will make it easier. Pick low-energy parts of your day for e-mail. The toughest part of this habit is turning off notifications that remind you when messages arrive.
Practise the five-sentence rule, boiling your message down to essentials. Most messages require only that length to explain the action you are taking.
Sort messages into various folders. You may have folders for customers or projects, but Mr. Scott has groupings such as "ongoing conversations," "questions from my team," "questions from people I have never talked to," and "questions from business friends." This allows canned responses for common queries. (He also keeps a desktop folder with files often requested by others, so he can easily find them.)
Handle each message once. He ran afoul of that when he kept checking e-mail on his phone when shopping or jogging, but responses were impossible. That simply wasted time. Look at an e-mail once, and then respond.
Eliminate pointless e-mails – the various newsletters and other material that are of little interest. Even if you don't normally read them, it takes energy and time to dispose of them. Instead, unsubscribe.
Calculate the value of your time, according to your salary, and keep that in mind when juggling e-mail. If you earn $200 an hour, that half-hour response to an e-mail costs $100.
By amending your mindset and trying these tactics, you'll be in better e-mail shape.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter