How we overcome the pain with email

Inbox Zero?

I’ve reached this goal, inbox zero. I wrote a tutorial how everyone can achieve that, too. Why is this important? For serveral reasons:

  • Your inbox folder is just a mailbox. You empty your mailbox to decide what you should do with every single letter on a daily basis. And after you read a letter, you dont put that letter back in your inbox or file that letter in a folder till you don’t completed the task in it.
  • White space is calming your mind!
  • Zero Inbox demonstrates that you have your shit together 🙂
Inbox Zero in Outlook for iOs

But to dig a bit deeper, I like to explain why and how I came to my conclusions.

I’ve given a lot of thought to

  • how employees deal with email
  • what is so painful about e-mail and
  • what you can do to become productive again.

In order to understand why I recommend what, I certainly find it useful to learn a little more about the background.

Phases in your working day

Every human being has several phases in his work. Know your work to make your work work is a very good approach. So let’s figure out, what kind of phases we experience usually:

1. communicative-collaborative phases:

Networking, exchange, encounter. In this phase we want to get into contact with others and build relationships. This is best done face to face, but also with tools such as video call/call. For best results, use this formula:

The lower the information density

f2f > video telephone > telephone > text (synchronous) > text (asynchronous)

the longer it takes and the less satisfactorily we perceive it.

Examples:

  • Meet with a customer or colleague to really listen and really understand.
  • work together with colleagues on a concept: Brainstorming, idea generation, discussion, development of a concept draft, refinement, publication

It’s collaboration, if we really do have a common responsibility for the result and a common vision.

2. superficial phases

Here we perform easier tasks at short intervals, which often belong to our absolute routine. We often switch back and forth between different tasks and often have the feeling that we are completing tasks at the same time. This causes stress in us, which in turn leads to a higher frequency of errors and makes us more tired. Cal Newport calls this “shallow work”.

Examples:

  • Coordinating meetings
  • checking social media
  • skimming email

3. focused phases:

This socalled deep work is about experiencing really long phases of uninterrupted thought work. We enter into that flow feeling, where we are neither underchallenged nor overstrained, where we are completely absorbed in our work, where time is forgotten and we are at the same time focused but relaxed. In this state we are highly productive because we work without distraction and without task switching. We make few mistakes and do not feel exhausted.

Challenge: Don’t mix these phases

Now that we have clarified which work phases we have, we need to understand why we should not combine or mix these phases: Anyone who skims their emails in a conversation or calls a colleague while working on a concept, disturbs him- or herself and quickly gets out of incentration.

Fact: If we are being disturbed in our deep work phase (smartphone pling, Outlook pling, ringing phone, colleague standing at the desk “do you just have 5 minutes?”), we need more than a quarter of an hour until we have reached our concentration level again… But since there will probably be more disturbances during this time, we drive the whole day with the handbrake on…

So when we try to do our job without a plan and are interrupted by several devices, apps and colleagues, we are neither effective nor efficient. Emails are a special challenge, because on the one hand they stand in the way of our tasks and on the other hand our handling of emails.

Most of the employees I consult use Outlook, which is why I will use this programme as an example. However, the method we use to deal with email in a healthy and effective way can also be applied to other programs.

Problem areas:

We have a few problem areas which result of our understanding what email is to us. We should re-learn that email really is what it is, asynchronous communication. Asynchronous means: We and the other(s) are not in a dialogue (nearly) at the same time. We have serveral kinds of interruptions:

1. notifications

By default email notifications are enabled in Outlook, unfortunately. If we do not understand the asynchronous approach and try to simulate synchronous communication, we are permanently under stress and are constantly interrupted by these notifications (we all know them, they appear on the lower right hand corner).

If we think we don’t even notice them anymore: This is already the worst case: Our sense of where our attention actually is, is unfortunately disrupted and we have to teach us again to be mindful of our working behaviour.
Interruptions due to.

So please, do yourself a favor and disable notifications. (File → Options → Email → Message arrival → remove marks from all checkboxes

We don’t even need that envelope in our taskbar, trust me 🙂

2. Curiosity

Once we stopped getting interrupted by Outlook Desktop, we make sure you turn off notification for Email (regardless in which app!) on your mobile phone(s). This was the easy part! Because now we have to deal with our working behaviour. We trained ourselves for years or decades to be interrupted every few minutes and to confuse important with urgent so we feel a certain kind of curiosity and and misunderstood sense of duty so we click on inbox although we already deal with another task. We need to stop that. Perhaps, some techniques like pomodoro may help you in the beginning. To me personally, it is more than makiung a conscious decision what I want to achieve and to established a self-paced working behavior.

3. Colleagues

“Have you already read my email?” We have probably all heard and perhaps even said this sentence before. Stop asking that. Putting pressure on others doesn’t make their work better.

Perhaps it helps to manage expectations if you include a quick part in your reply to emails which will take longer to finally complete. Something like “I have marked the processing of your request for the end of next week. Should it be more urgent, please call me at 0211–1234567890, thank you very much.” You can party automate this using quicksteps in Outlook.

4. Content does not come in the right context / cumbersome working methods

Email doesn’t display information linked to processes and content by default and because most of us didn’t get proper training on how to deal with email, we just assume that it is our job to always try to figure out which belongs what. So we arbe busy with being busy, which is time-consuming, stress-causing and frustrating. Get over it! Stop moving emails to a huge amount of folders, subfolders and nested folders. Nested folders don’t make sense in a digital world where we can search and filter for information. Just think of your Outlook like an Excel table with lots of columns where you can just filter the information you need right now. Read more in-depth instructions here.

5. Missing Overview:

Nearly everytime we switch to Outlook, we scan/scroll through our emails, looking for answers:

  • What has to be done right now? Is this urgend or important? (most of us are confusing this!)
  • What am I not able to do now?
  • What can I leave behind?

Again, we waste time because we didn’t decide consciousness for every single email how to deal with it.

Solution:

  1. Decide what phase you are in. If you communicate / collaborate, stop doing other things. If you focus, make sure not to be interrupted. If you do shallow work, stop trying to talk with others wt the same time. Stop trying to multitask.
  2. Deal with email the right way:
  • Qualify your email 1–3 times a day, decide for each item: What do I need to do (next step) and till when do I have to complete that. Configure your Outlook as shown in instructions.
  • Close Outlook while in Deep Work Phase

This makes sure you use the power of being focued when you need that and being reactive as far it is necessary. Please don’t ever underestimate of being in the flow zone 🙂

Sketchnote

I once mindmapped my thoughts on email and hopefully this sketchnote will help you, too.

Feedback!?

What are your thoughts? Which working method do you prefer? What works? What doesn’t work? Very curious to learn more 🙂

If you find this blogpost value-adding, just clap so I know what content you are interested in.

Luise

Luise is an independent Microsoft 365 Consultant, Microsoft MVP for Office, Apps & Services, Sketchnotes Artist and Power Platform Advocate based in Germany. Do you need help with your project, want to exchange views or just connect? Feel free to follow me in twitter, LinkedIn or get in touch via contact form.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.