When people are asked about stressors in their lives, one of the most common answers is not having enough time. Yet, we don’t always acknowledge that we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to creating time crunches for ourselves.
Sometimes time pressures result from genuinely having too much to do. But often they come from either inability to set boundaries for our time, or frequently, from our own unproductive work habits. Probably nothing has had a bigger effect on procrastination and low productivity at work than email, whether it’s our habit of reflexively checking it every five minutes or our expectation that it will be read immediately.
Although we see commercials on TV of people seamlessly and instantaneously completing international business deals with a click of the smart phone, in reality many business and personal transactions take place only after a long string of emails back and forth. The question is, is that the best way to get things done?
Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference, addressed this topic in last Sunday’s Washington Post. He believes that email volume is getting out of hand in part because email is “easier to create than to respond to”. Someone sends you an email, crosses that off their to-do list, and leaves you with the harder job of formulating an answer. Worst, Anderson says, are the emails with open-ended questions, such as “What are your thoughts?”
Because people have come to expect rapid responses to emails, the recipient is then stuck with deciding whether to drop other (probably more important) work to come up with an adequate answer to that open-ended question, or to leave it in the inbox for a while and let the email pile up.
As long as 20 years ago, some early tech pioneers had already given up email and gone back to using the telephone as a primary tool of communication. Sherry Turkle of MIT may have coined the term “email bankruptcy” after her research showed that people wanted to wipe out all the email in their inboxes. Since then, there have been regular news stories about people who have done just that – deleted all their unanswered emails, and started over with a clean slate.
Stephen Covey, in his books on time management, recommends dividing tasks into a matrix:
- Urgent & Important;
- Important but Not Urgent;
- Urgent but Not Important; and
- Not Urgent or Important.
He believes that most time should be spent working in quadrant 2 (important, but not urgent), doing things like planning, relationship building and personal development. The problem might be when you think you are relationship building by sending someone an email, when you’re actually creating a quadrant 3 (urgent, but not important) task for them by expecting them to respond!
With that in mind, Anderson and others at TED have come up with the Email Charter, which is basically a list of principles to abide by when sending email. All the principles are designed to “encourage senders to reduce the time, effort and stress required of responders.” They include points such as “no open-ended questions” and use of the acronym, “NNTR”, which stands for “No need to respond”.
Some other things we might ask ourselves:
- Is email the best form of communication for this message? Will I be better understood if I call or talk face to face instead?
- How often do I really need to check my emails? Would once an hour be appropriate? How about every two hours, or three times a day? Figure out what is best for you and try to make it a habit.
- If you cannot resist checking the email, consider downloading software that will block it for you. Programs such as SelfControl can block email servers and Facebook for a set amount of time, and not let you use them until the timer runs out.
- Can you declare an email vacation once a week, or once a month? Plan a day without checking or responding to emails. You’d be surprised how much time you have for things like family, friends, reading a book or going for a walk.
Ultimately, we need to figure out if the things that are least important in our lives are getting the most attention. Sherry Turkle has said, “Sometimes we’re too busy communicating to listen to each other.” Can we break the cycle?