Is now the time for an email amnesty?

Constant email stress is becoming a fact of life for the majority of workers now: is an amnesty over selected times the way to solve it?

Constant email stress is becoming a fact of life for the majority of workers now: is an amnesty over selected times the way to solve it?

Hearing complaints about the volume of emails that people are getting is a sign of our times. But the odd thing is that I hear the same complaint from people getting 30 per day and those receiving 300.

No matter what the number, it seems everyone is feeling pressured by their inbox. Not only that, but – because of the structure of the inbox – the last inbound mail often is prioritized over more strategic tasks. Despite this ambient sense of being stuck in helpless reaction, I think we have more influence over the volume and speed of what we receive than we are aware of.

For most of us total control is a pipedream, but I believe we can influence the volume of inputs we get in both a positive and negative direction. I see there are three things that we are doing that move the needle in the wrong direction:

Not responding

I’ve worked with clients for whom a good 15-20% of the inputs they were getting were from someone asking for a reaction to something they had sent earlier. Once your environment no longer trusts your ability to respond in a timely manner then they have to develop coping strategies, which will include putting reminders in their own system to mail you again, calling you to see if you got the last mail, or worse, coming over and interrupting you to request a response to whatever they just sent you.

Responding too quickly

If you spend too much time in your inbox, you might be making the mistake of responding too quickly. Have you ever found yourself responding to multiple responses in an email chain, when you could have waited a few hours and dipped into the conversation once or twice in the day and it would have been plenty? You could have reviewed all of the feedback and commented with a better perspective. Some of the topics might even have been handled by the time you got to them at the end of the day.

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Part of the challenge is that there is a much more immediate reward for working on something fresh than there is in working on something gnarly and strategic. It feels good to see progress -any progress – even if only with that little number on the screen that tells us how many mails we have in “in”. But driving that number down is more about fear than it is about the world’s need to hear from you double quick. There is often a big difference in the timing of your need to respond to regain a sense of control, and the actual need for an immediate response on the other side.

Out of hours emailing

Some people send mails out of office hours and on the weekend, simply to prepare themselves for the next day or week, to clear some actions. The challenge is this,  if you respond to an e-mail at 10pm, you very often have it back again by 10.30. This is keeping you from ever “winning” at the game of emptying your inbox. Worse, you add your contribution to the culture of “always on”.

So what can you do?

Get clear on standards and expectations

Decide on your personal/team/organisational policy for what can people expect from you in terms of response times. Your choice will be influenced by both the nature of your work and the culture of your organisation. Would a 24 hour turnaround on incoming emails work in your organisation? It does in some, but if you think that is too long, how about 4 hours? Two? For some people, even checking and responding to emails once an hour rather than continuously would be an improvement in terms of what other – less reactive – work it would make possible.

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Here’s the thing: if you’re generating the expectation of a 10 minute turnaround by responding to everything as it comes in, do not be surprised if your correspondents start chasing when you need a couple of hours to get back to them. If, on the other hand, everyone is trained to expect a response every 24 hours, and not every 24 minutes, you’ll have created a tremendous amount of free space to work with when you want to get strategic with your time.

Even the most demanding boss or client is not expecting that you respond at the speed of light to each and every thought they have from the back of a cab on the way to the airport. Not every mail. They pay you to respond urgently to the urgent ones, not to respond to every one as if it was urgent. There is a difference.

Declare an email amnesty!

Feel free to work if you want to, but don’t send anything out after a certain time and on weekends. Simply use “drafts” after 7pm and on the weekend. It is a much different experience to clear your inbox and know that something that comes in overnight is something that you generated for yourself by sending that email on the commute home.

Give it a try; I suspect no one will notice, and if they do it won’t be to complain that you are no longer mailing them on the weekend with new things to worry about while they are trying to spend time with their family and friends.

Further reading: Making the most of the home office

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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Business management