Breaking the Email Habit

I have a problem with email.

The problem I have is not email itself – it’s a marvellous tool, and when used well, it’s extremely effective, highly efficient, and wonderfully convenient.

The problem I have with email is that it’s been running me.

Over the past several months, I’ve gotten involved in lots of different things – 12for12k, SAW Video Co-op, Algonquin College, this blog, an arts and entertainment web site (launching soon!) – this, combined with my day to day work and personal email, meant I was receiving upwards of 200 emails a day. It was getting out of control, and fast. I have 3 email accounts that I use regularly, plus I monitor several others for my business. Going through my incoming mail was confusing at best. Inbox=0 was not even an option.

Then I discovered AwayFind, and the free e-book I got when I signed up, and things started to change. (Disclosure: I wrote a review about this tool ages ago when they were first starting out and they were kind enough to provide me with an account to try out – but that’s not why I like them! This is simply an excellent tool!) I learned how to filter and categorize my incoming email so I was only dealing with that which was most important, and leaving everything else till later. I unsubscribed from lots of automated services that did nothing but send me junk. I started filing my email using Gmail’s labels and I never looked back. Now, Inbox=0 is a reality for me much of the time.

I’m up and running smoothly with my email system now, but I have to admit that I’ve fallen off the wagon in the past while in some ways. Since I got my iPhone last year it’s been all too easy to pay attention to those new messages as they fly into my inbox. I found myself checking way too often (sometimes 2 or 3 times an hour!), to the detriment of my productivity and sometimes the people around me. You see, it’s one thing to check in on messages, it’s another when the content of those messages pushes you to action – whether it’s dealing with a situation immediately, or even just putting it in the forefront of your mind, so you can’t focus on the task (or meeting, or lunch with your Mom) at hand. Something had to give.

I’m taking some new steps with my email, starting this week. Although I don’t think I’ll ever be Tim Ferriss (who apparently checks his email only once a week or so), I think I can get to a point where I’m only checking a few times a day. There are a few things that need to happen in order for this to be successful.

It’s not just my behaviour that has to change. I can “not” check email. The problem is, we live in a culture of immediacy now. Some are worse than others, but there’s this expectation that if you receive an email that you will reply almost instantaneously, and if you don’t, well, I’ll have to find other ways to get your attention. We all know people who email, then text us, then leave a voicemail to say “Did you get my email?”. Ugh. If I’m going to change the way I deal with email, I need to also set the expectations of those who email me. AwayFind helps this some. But it’s also letting people know that this is how I choose to use the tool, and if you need me urgently, this is the path you need to take. Of course, there will always be the issue that what’s urgent to someone else may not be urgent to me. I haven’t quite solved that one yet.

Shut it up. I used to have my iPhone set so that it would go out and check for new emails every 20 minutes or so and automatically chime when new mail was received. Well, with 200 emails a day, you can only imagine how irritating that got. Not to mention, looking at that little red new email indicator saying “25” after a one hour meeting was quite disheartening. So first, I turned the notification chime off. Then, I went a step further and only let the phone download new messages when I opened the email app. Then, I went a step further than that, and moved my email icon off my home screen to the second page. Out of sight, out of mind. Now, I check email on my phone when it’s convenient for ME. Or I use the tool to send a message to someone from the road. No more distractions!

Schedule email time. We’ve all heard this one before, and this is the one that’s hardest for me. I am trying to check my email only three times a day – once when I logon in the morning (anytime between 6:30am and 8:30am), once after lunch, and once either before the end of the business day or in the evening after dinner, depending on my schedule. I’ve only been at it a couple of days so far, but it seems to be working. I’ll let you know how it goes (Ahem….I could use a little “go Suze!” encouragement right about now – hint hint! 😉

Don’t let it get to you. Whatever happens in email, stays in email. If you are being good, checking a few times a day, then you won’t be ruled by what is lurking there when you’re not on it. When you sit down to work on your email, then focus on working on it. If you get an undesirable email, which we all do from time to time, don’t respond right away. Reactionary responses are almost always a bad idea. Give it a day (or at least a few hours, if you can’t manage a whole day). And whatever you do, don’t take it personally, and don’t drag the negativity around with you. When you need to deal with an email that is unpleasant, or even hostile, stop. Take a breath. Put it out to the Universe. Then wait some. You’ll get the answers you need, and then be able to deal with it in a rational, focused way. Remember – it’s just email. It’s not life or death.

Well, that’s the stuff I’m trying. I hope it’s somewhat helpful to you. I don’t have all the answers, to be sure, and this is just what works for me. I want to know – what’s working for you? Share your suggestions in the comments, ok? And thanks!

Breaking the Email Habit
Hello world!


  • August 5, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Way to go Suze!

    I am encouraged by your steps and I am eagerly waiting to see how it works out. Lord knows most of us are in a similar boat and could use some help on the email front.

    Keep it up. report back with progress if you please!

    Oh – yeah… in case you are interested in some other “productivity” monitoring solutions that help give you a reality check – try out – something I’m dabling with to help track overall productivity. Shocking actually.

    e-mail junkie

  • August 6, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Go Suze!

    I told you that we “banned” internal email at the office. After about 10 weeks of no internal email, I blogged about it and got critics left and right (it also was the most reblogged post in the blog’s history) about how “stupid” that is. Fact is, it works for us. But we’re all in the same office so it forces us to talk to one another (which takes A LOT less time than email) and the culture is changing as we become more productive.

    But I am still facing the dilemma you describe above – I still receive external email and people expect me to answer their emails immediately. Some days I want to turn on my out of office and say, “Thanks for your email. I received it and I PROMISE I’ll get back to you. If I don’t within seven days, you may email me a reminder.”

    Most days I just tell people (new clients, new vendors, partners, etc.) that the best way to reach me, and get immediate response, is through a Twitter direct message. Probably in a year I’ll have to set boundaries on that, too.

    If anyone is interested in reading how we did it internally, the link is here:
    [rq=274083,0,blog][/rq]Is It True Behind Every Successful Woman Is a Man?



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