Learning how to balance work while keeping up with your inbox can be tough. It’s frustrating, and not to mention stressful, when you’re trying to get work done while being acutely aware that your inbox is slowly but surely filling up. It’s easy to fall into the habit of checking your email every few minutes and answering everything the second it comes in, but that unnecessarily creates an atmosphere of stress and pressure (and not to mention it makes it nearly impossible to devote a chunk of time to working on a project).
So how do we avoid the modern pitfall of feeling trapped by our inboxes? How do we learn to control our email rather than have our email control us? The key is developing a healthy attitude towards your inbox. I’m aware this sounds incredibly simple, but that’s because it is. Developing a positive philosophy towards emails is crucial in order to maximize how you spend your time and energy at work. Dealing with non-stop work emails can feel like fighting an uphill battle and only by developing a healthy attitude and methodology towards dealing with your inbox can that hill become a smooth plain.
Developing a positive attitude towards your inbox is tough, but do it and I guarantee it’ll bring you better peace of mind (which will then create a happier, more productive, and less stressful work environment). So what does a positive philosophy towards email look like? Something like this:
-Know that email may have urgency, but urgency doesn’t equal importance. An unread email sitting in your inbox may seem like a ticking bomb, but know that it’s perfectly okay to respond to emails within a 24-48 hour window. That time frame may be different depending on what industry you’re in, but never feel like you have to respond to an email within a few hours of receiving it (note: it’s probably not a bad idea to shrink that window when an email comes from your boss, senior management, or co-workers you see on a daily basis).
-Know that just because you receive emails outside of working hours doesn’t mean you have to answer work emails outside of working hours (once again, this advice might be outdated if you’re in a certain profession or industry). A lot of senior management at my organization are big fans of leaving work at 5 pm, having family time, putting the kids down to bed, and then answering and sending emails around 8 or 9 pm. While it’s tempting to answer those emails to show your bosses you’re on top of your work, your bosses really aren’t expecting a response, and are only sending out emails that late to minimize how much work they have to do the next day. Don’t feel pressured to respond to emails after work, and a great way to do that is to just not check your email after work at all. Chances are, any email you send at 10 pm isn’t going to be seen by the recipient until the next morning anyway, so don’t worry about it. Even if sending the email takes 30 seconds and no thought on your part, it’s not healthy to be thinking about work 24/7, your brain needs (and deserves!) a break.
-Tangential to the point above, know that setting boundaries can be professional and doesn’t have to come off as being stingy or lazy. While I’m not suggesting you put up an “out-of-office” reply once 5 pm hits, if you continually respond to emails outside of working hours, people will expect you to be available at all times and they may pressure you for faster responses. Similarly, sending emails out after work hours (especially to your co-workers) puts people in an uncomfortable position. They don’t want to be answering emails after work, but maybe you emailed them at 7 pm because you absolutely needed an answer tonight? Same as how you don’t want to feel pressured to answer emails at night, don’t send emails at night and risk bothering your co-workers. Lastly, if you start sending emails to co-workers at night, they might send some emails right back at ya,
-Know that checking your email every few minutes, even if it’s just to look and not respond, will distract you from whatever project you’re working on and it will destroy your productivity. It sounds crazy, but there’s no need to keep your email up in one screen with your work up in another; watching those unread messages pile up is distracting and you may feel rushed to hurry up and finish what you’re working on so you can respond to all those emails. It’s perfectly acceptable to only check your email every hour or so. REALLY.
-Know that nudging people for fast responses or using language that signifies you want a response ASAP will only lead to people to expect you to also respond to emails at the speed of light….
-Take the time to create canned responses. If you find yourself answering the same email over and over again, creating a canned response to standard requests will save you the time of typing a response or finding a response from an old email to copy and paste.
-Create folders. I’m constantly searching back through my email for information and being able to search certain folders instead of my entire inbox if definitely a time saver.
-If you’re asking a co-worker for information you know they have readily available and they can give to you verbally, save them the hassle of reading and answering an email and just go ask them in person or call them. Don’t be afraid of the telephone! Calling your co-workers for a 30 second phone call (as long as you’re not doing it all day everyday) or paying them a quick visit will not usually bother them, and it will also help you build professional bonds and get you out of your chair.
-If an email contains an action item you can’t do at the moment but will need to respond to once you’ve completed the task, mark it as unread and keep it that way until you’ve done the task and are ready to respond. Doing this is a great way to use your inbox as a task list and make sure you don’t miss anything.
-If an email contains a reference to something you’ll need in the near-future, but not the immediate-future, let’s say it’s something you just need to keep an eye on, mark the email as read but star it. Then, make it a habit to browse your starred folder every few days to keep track of those things you’re supposed to be keeping an eye on.
-Prioritize emails from your boss and senior management, and then your co-workers. These are the people you need to work with and see every day, and responding to their emails within 24 hours is a great and easy way to stay in their good graces and maintain a positive and happy work environment.