Clear Your Email First thing
Why not doing so is terrible advice
Last week, in my weekly newsletter, I wrote about why checking your email first thing in the morning is essential if you are to have a productive day.
I know this is contrary to almost all productivity advice. That advice is offered by professors, content creators or productivity “experts” who have little to no experience working in a world of stressed-out bosses, colleagues, and clients who change important information at the last moment or anything else vital to your work.
One of the most productive people to have ever lived, Winston Churchill, began his day with his mail and the newspapers. Pretty much all the things we are advised not to do. Yet, he wrote forty-two books covering seventy-two volumes and thousands of articles in his lifetime. He led the British through its darkest hours during World War Two and still had time to paint, take two-hour lunches and three-hour dinners.
Churchill needed to know what was going on — that was his job. Prepared speeches often needed changing because of some new development in the world. He would never have been able to make those last-minute changes if he wasn’t aware of what was going on in the world before he started doing his planned work for the day.
Email is still the industry standard for communicating between customers, collaborators, and colleagues in today’s world. It’s typically how critical information is sent and how we learn what needs to be done, whether a deadline has changed or a meeting cancelled.
The problem with not touching email until later is that you will worry about missing something important. You will constantly think there might be something in your inbox that needs your attention (there won’t be — rarely does anything need your immediate attention), which will distract you from the work you planned to do.
One of the best times to do focused work (AKA “deep work”) is the morning. Your brain is fresh; you are more creative and make better decisions. You destroy this advantage when you are distracted by worrying about what may or may not be sitting in your inbox.
Now, there is a warning here.
You want to be processing and not doing in the morning. The purpose is to remove the distraction by clearing your inbox and processing it. Processing means deleting, archiving and moving actionable emails to an Action This Day folder — where you collect all emails you need to do something with.
You must never allow morning email processing to destroy your plan for the day.
And please forget the 2-minute rule — you only need ten of those, and you’ve lost twenty minutes — it doesn’t work for email. The goal is to clear your inbox. To get an idea of what’s going on, and then turn to your first task of the day.
The clarity and peace of mind you gain from doing this outweighs the rare possibility you discover an urgent, crisis-ridden email. In the real world, these emails are infrequent, and when you come across one, you can still choose to deal with it later after you have finished your first important piece of work.
The goal here is to clear the decks. Get a grasp on what is happening, so you can make any adjustments necessary, so you are working on the right things at the right time. I’ve seen people panicking to finish a presentation only to discover, after wasting two hours on the presentation file, that there was an email cancelling or postponing the presentation until next month.
How much effort and energy does it take to resist the temptation to check your email first thing in the morning? Quite a lot for most people. (That’s FOMO — the Fear of Missing Out — for you). Instead, you could use a fraction of that energy to resist responding to emails as you process your inbox and, at the same time, get a clear picture of what is happening in your world.
I can process eighty emails in about fifteen minutes (to give you a benchmark number). All I am doing is deciding what an email is, whether I need to do something and either deleting, archiving or adding it to my Action This Day folder. (It takes daily practice to get that fast)
This clears my mind, gives me a sense of what’s happening, and removes the fear I might be missing something important. It ensures I am more focused when working on that first task of the day.
Schedule communication time
The key to staying on top of these actionable emails is to schedule a period later in the day for responding to them. Give yourself an hour for responding to your communications towards the end of the day. You will avoid email ping pong and be consistent with your responses. Your colleagues, customers, and bosses soon learn your routines, making for a more relaxed working day when you feel much more in control and are less anxious.
Now, when you do this does depend on the environment, you work in. For me, 7 PM works best. That’s when Europe starts its day, and the US is still fast asleep. It means my replies arrive when the people I work with are waking up or starting their day. If you work in an email intensive environment where responses are expected the same day, you may want to schedule 11 AM to 12 PM for responding to your actionable email.
The important thing is you are setting aside time to respond. If you don’t set aside time for this, you will begin to feel anxious about all the emails you know need responding to. Knowing you have a block of time later in the day specifically for your actionable mail leaves you feeling relaxed about what you need to do.
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