Minimizing use of e-mail can increase efficiency, reduce stress



Instead of responding to e-mail as it comes in, these experts suggest setting aside a daily block of time for e-mail. And even consider — gasp — turning your e-mail off completely.

Your Business, Unplugged Productivity experts say minimizing use of e-mail can increase your company’s efficiency – and reduce stress By Lilly Rockwell

 

As chief technology officer at Landrum Staffing, a Pensacola-based employment agency, Britt Landrum III spends nearly half of his day on e-mail, swiftly typing responses to urgent queries, deflecting the frivolous ones and filing away messages for future reference.

"I do my best to attack an e-mail as soon as I get it," Landrum says. "I either take action on it immediately or file it into another folder."

The self-professed neat freak is so quick to respond to the hundreds of e-mails he receives that his inbox is usually empty.

But productivity experts say the way Landrum — and most American workers — checks e-mail is wrong. Instead of responding to e-mail as it comes in, these experts suggest setting aside a daily block of time for e-mail.

And even consider — gasp — turning your e-mail off completely.

"It isn’t effective to check your e-mail all day long," says Lea Schneider, who runs Pensacola-based Organize Your Time. She urges her clients to check e-mail a mere three times a day, and other productivity experts say only two times is necessary.

"If somebody really has a crisis, they will pick up the phone and call you," Schneider says.

Productivity experts say many workers operate under the misguided notion that it’s essential to respond to e-mails as soon as they arrive.

"However much people think they need to check their e-mail, it’s always less than that," says productivity expert Maura Thomas, who is based in Austin, Texas. "For many industries, except really high-demand industries, I think twice daily is plenty."

Ever since electronic mail became a popular business tool in the mid-1990s, the pinging of e-mails landing in an inbox has become more frequent than the ringing of a telephone.

There were 6 trillion business e-mail messages sent in 2006, according to Ferris Research, a technology consulting firm. And that number will likely climb each year as more employees gain access to e-mail. By the end of this year, Ferris estimates that there will be nearly 140 million business e-mail users in North America.

Although many experienced top executives and business managers sing the praises of e-mail, workers say the convenience has led to more evening and weekend work.

Nearly 50 percent of people surveyed in 2008 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project say e-mail has increased the stress of their job.

Managers and executives especially should try to stick to checking e-mail only two to three times a business day, experts say, because it encourages employees to do the same.

"Many business owners either don’t know or don’t want to acknowledge the fact that e-mail is zapping at least probably an hour of productivity per day from their business," says Marsha Egan, an e-mail productivity expert based in Reading, Pa. "That’s a lot."

Egan tells business owners to imagine employees taking a two-hour lunch every day, which is no different from letting employees check e-mail all day.

"It’s death by a thousand cuts," she says. "There are people who probably lose an hour to two hours every day checking e-mail and don’t know it."

Many workers who don’t set aside time to check e-mail and instead try to multi-task can easily become overwhelmed with the number of messages pouring in and fall behind, leading to thousands of unchecked messages and a clogged server. This often triggers a mandated purge that causes stress and lost productivity.

Some workers treat their inbox like an electronic library, carefully preserving messages that date back years.

Experts suggest that you go through a purge and ask yourself if you really need those messages. Chances are that if you haven’t needed it in the past year, you won’t need it again. Hit delete.

"Do not use your e-mail inbox as a reference tool," Thomas says. Use folders to file away messages for reference later, but don’t get too elaborate, because the search feature on your e-mail client will help locate messages.

While some business owners scoff at these time-saving tips, Carol Carlan of Pensacola has embraced them.

Carlan is well established in the Florida business community, having run the West Panhandle division of Wachovia Bank before becoming a consultant and motivational speaker. She checks her e-mail four times a day, scheduling time during the day in short blocks of time.

"I have multiple companies so being connected is imperative, but I know that I have to be disciplined," Carlan says.

She restricts her e-mailing on evenings and weekends, preferring to spend time with family.

"We all need to unplug," Carlan says. She won’t look at her BlackBerry after

9 p.m. During one business trip, Carlan returned to find 125 messages in her inbox. She knew it would have taken her an entire day to wade through them.

"So I did an experiment and just deleted all 125," she says. "I thought if it really was important, or if someone really needed to reach me, they’d call or e-mail me again."

She didn’t get any calls.

Carlan admires strategies suggested by Tim Ferriss, who wrote the popular business book "The 4-Hour Work Week," which offers suggestions on how to work as little as possible while making as much money as possible.

"I think he’s gotten it down to where he checks his e-mail just once a week," Carlan says. (Ferriss even suggests outsourcing one’s e-mail to someone else.)

Still, the majority of business owners are skeptical about turning off their e-mail, explaining that constant access is crucial to their business.

"I’m always in my e-mail, whether on my computer or on my phone," says Mikal Caldwell, president of Tallahassee-based brandEdge, a brand development firm.

Caldwell is hooked in to his computer or mobile device like a patient on an IV drip, checking e-mail on evenings and weekends. E-mail is vital to his business, he says.

Caldwell, however, also uses organizational tools to help prioritize incoming e-mails. Messages are categorized by sender and are immediately filed into the appropriate electronic folder.

"Any clients that e-mail me go into a folder that gets top priority," he says.

E-mail is so important to Caldwell that he promises his clients in a written contract that he will respond to all e-mails within four hours.

When Caldwell heard that some productivity experts suggest checking e-mail only twice a day, he was stunned.

"I couldn’t survive only checking it twice," he says.

Experts acknowledge that some jobs require constant e-mail activity but maintain that workers in these fields should set aside more blocks of time for e-mail, perhaps checking five times a day instead of two or three.

Caldwell isn’t the only one raising an eyebrow at that advice. Rick Oppenheim, who runs Tallahassee public relations firm RB Oppenheim Associates, also keeps his inbox open all day.

"You can’t just turn it off, because these days everybody knows that e-mail is immediate," Oppenheim says. "I may have a client, I may have a family member who will send me something, and they have an expectation that I’m going to see it immediately. Sometimes something is really urgent."

Nonsense, says productivity expert Egan.

"The majority of people sending e-mail don’t expect a response for 24 hours," she says. The receiver often assumes the sender wants an immediate response when that may not be the case. And Austin’s Thomas says studies have shown that multitasking is not the best way to approach a task. Get one thing done at a time.

But if you have developed a habit of lightning-quick e-mail responses and start taking 24 hours before sending a response, you may startle your co-workers and clients, Egan says. Explain your new strategy to colleagues and clients.

Chances are, she says, they are just fine with it.

 

Tips from E-Mail Experts

  • Set aside a block of time just for checking e-mail.
  • Check your e-mail two to four times a day — first thing in the morning, after lunch and at the end of a day.
  • Turn off e-mail.
  • Change your settings so new messages on a computer or mobile device are downloaded every two to three hours. Or log out of your inbox.
  • Establish a system for answering and organizing e-mail quickly.
  • Answer messages that will take less than two minutes. Determine what e-mails need to be saved for action later and file those in folders outside of the inbox. Check these folders on a regular basis.
  • Use the "reply all" and "cc" functions sparingly.
  • Discuss with supervisors or employees when using "cc" and "reply all" is appropriate. It can be more productive to talk in person.
  • Explore free e-mail organizing tools available on the Internet.
  • OtherInbox (otherinbox.com) is a free service that creates a second e-mail inbox to send non-urgent messages from sites such as Facebook. Try whenisgood.net for organizing business lunches or meetings.
  • Don’t use e-mail on evenings or weekends.
  • Turn off the e-mail function after business hours. Discuss with employees and clients their expectations for after-hours e-mailing.
  • Don’t mix business and personal e-mail in one account.
  • Set up a separate account to manage personal communication on sites such as Yahoo, Gmail or Hotmail.

(Compiled from information provided by productivity experts Peggy Duncan of Atlanta; Marsha Egan of Reading, Pa.; and Maura Thomas of Austin, Texas)

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