IMG_8159By Christine Brown-Quinn, The Female Capitalist®

Do you ever feel like your email inbox is literally dictating your life? This has become such a common phenomenon  – dare I say epidemic –  in today’s workplace. The irony is that the overuse and over reliance on email is leading us to neglect the truly important things – from a business perspective as well as in our personal lives.

How did we get where we are?  The new normal business environment is defined by constant change, increased competition and challenging economic conditions.  We feel more pressure to be “seen” to be working, and as more and more businesses operate across multiple time zones,  the emails keep on coming, even when it’s supposed to be downtime!

Being great at responding to emails is not going to get you the corner office.  In fact, I would argue, that it could actually be impeding your productivity and performance, and negatively impacting your health.  Remember the S-T-A-R-S formula for effective goal setting which I shared with you in February? The first S was for Strategic. It’s crucial that you have clear objectives in mind that you want to achieve and keep focused on those. Emails are a tool, not an end objective. Constantly checking emails kills your productivity.  Instead of your attention being directed at the business priority that you’ve set, you’re allowing others to dominate your agenda.

Emails are connected to poor health – really? You may think I’m overstating the case, but hear me out. Science tells us that being constantly present on email means our bodies are in high alert, or fright and flight mode. Why does that matter? In a high alert state (danger is imminent) are bodies are producing stress hormones, which when left unchecked, result in chronic headaches, sleep disruption, high blood pressure, and more. I have seen this first-hand, having worked in an organisation where every email had at least 30 recipients on it. Everyone wanted to be “seen”. Everyone was fighting for their individual survival in a time of great economic uncertainty. Sadly, the end result I witnessed  was too many talented professionals suffering from burnout and other stress-related illnesses.

Now understanding the consequences of letting emails control your life, what specific strategies can you follow? Always keeping in mind your strategic goals, here are my three top tips for managing email mania:

  1. Set expectations with your clients, manager and colleagues about when you’re likely to be ‘on line.’ In effect, you’re teaching others about your email habits. For example, if you respond to emails late at night, others will be expecting you to do so in the future. Then you’ve fallen into a self-made trap! This also means it’s important to establish a standard form of communication when things are truly urgent. For instance,  when you’re on holiday, say to your team and your manager, if something’s urgent the best way to reach me is by text.
  2. Carve out chunks of time to deal with email. This not only avoids the constant disruption preventing you from focusing on your important strategic goals, but it also improves the quality of your email responses. It’s essential to respond in order of importance of the emails, rather than what comes in first. In fact, using your strategic lens, some emails don’t deserve a response at all!  Some issues are just not deserving of your attention, and other issues can’t be resolved efficiently by email. A telephone call for instance may be more effective in dealing with emotionally sensitive issues or where a misunderstanding has occurred.  Learning not to respond, or even not to respond right away are also learned skills, but equally valuable as learning to respond to truly significant issues.
  3. Avoid looking at emails before you go to bed, and the first thing in the morning.  Looking at emails before you go to bed, makes it more difficult for your brain to switch off from the fright and flight mode, and into the rest and digest mode that’s key to keeping your body healthy.  As you fall asleep, you’re likely to be thinking about that work email!  Looking at emails when you first wake up hijacks the day’s agenda.  What’s strategically important to you for that day?  Giving yourself some head space to think about you approach to the day and how to resolve some tricky key issues puts you in a position of control, and therefore reduces stress and improves not only your well being but your productivity.

Given email mania is a widely recognised problem,  there are a number of tools out there in the various email systems to help you implement your newly found email strategy – filtering tools, colour coding for priority emails, shutting off pop ups, etc.  Be brave  – you may be swimming against the tide in your organisation, but the benefit is huge – you’ll be happier and healthier in your career!