The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the title of a classic mid-1960s movie. It also describes the daily battle with your e-mail. Clint Eastwood, who portrayed the leading character in the film, was a fighter with gumption and a clever strategy to triumph. Likewise, you need to be a warrior to emerge victorious from the three faces of e-mail.
Ann Gomez, a Toronto productivity consultant, has worked with thousands of people to reform their instinctive, ineffective e-mail practices to free them from the overwhelming deluge. "It was so liberating and empowering for people that it inspired me to turn it into a book," she says in an interview about her effort, The Email Warrior.
The good: E-mail allows speed, collaboration and transparency. It's asynchronous, so the parties to a conversation don't have to arrange to connect at the same time – they can reply according to their individual schedules.
The bad: E-mail consumes much of our day. It has taken on a life of its own, the volume ever-increasing and each missive seeming to demand an urgent response. We are constantly checking e-mail, without realizing the grip it has on us – research shows we check e-mail 10 times more often than we admit. Asynchronicity is forgotten as we seek instantaneous response.
The ugly: E-mail is addictive, eroding our attention span and with it our ultimate productivity.
Ms. Gomez says that "e-mail functions like a slot machine in a Las Vegas casino." We are constantly refreshing the send-receive button to see if something exciting will arrive to lift our day. It feeds our curiosity, at a seemingly low cost (We don't count our productivity). We seek instant rewards, which include the noble cause of responding quickly to urgent e-mails from colleagues and clients.
But most e-mails aren't actually urgent. It's a self-imposed expectation, not the time frame most senders expect. "If you get 100 e-mails a day, not all are urgent. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority," she says.
The approaches we have chosen to handle this crisis have been flawed. Multitasking gets us nowhere, and leads to an unfocused day that feels even more overwhelming and further confuses priorities. Our second tactic is triaging – sifting through all the e-mails to figure out how best to deal with them, and so, handling them too many times. That's fine when you have five minutes between meetings to check the inbox, but not as a routine practice. Yet, for many people, triage is a prime policy and Ms. Gomez calculates it costs them 120 hours a year in wasted effort – three weeks' worth of work. The third approach is hoarding, keeping things in the e-mail box to serve as to-do list and filing cabinet.
She teaches e-mail warriors three strategies that are the obverse of those approaches:
Dedicate: Instead of responding to e-mail as it comes in, attack it in batches at convenient times, chosen to fit your schedule, preferences and the needs of those you connect with. Usually that doesn't mean checking more than once an hour – certainly not every five minutes – and in many jobs, it can be every few hours or once or twice a day. That liberates you to focus on your actual priorities and to be less frenetic and more intent when you do tackle e-mail.
Trust that people who urgently need you will phone if you don't respond immediately. She stresses there is no one-size-fits-all principle; our jobs are quite different and will require different response times. There might be a day, for example, with a lot of back-and-forth over a contract being signed that requires more checking than normal.
Do: Apply the one-touch principle – which is the opposite of triage – handling each e-mail once. Respond immediately if you have the time and since you will now be assigning bigger blocks of time to e-mail, longer responses are possible.
Defer: If the item needs further study or time, put it on your to-do list as its own priority. And then transfer it to another folder, so you aren't hoarding and can easily see new stuff arriving.
These principles aren't murky. In three hours at her workshops, Ms. Gomez shows people how to implement them and includes such guidance in her book. "There is an easier way to process e-mail and it's well within your grasp," she insists.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, 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 column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter