I am convinced that some day we will all have a really good laugh at ourselves for ever using a form of communication as ridiculous as email. We will laugh that we ever tried to make it do the things we make it do. It is my hope that we will soon move to more efficient forms of communication.
In the meantime, though, we are stuck with email, and need to learn to use it well. I have put a lot of time and thought into the best email practices and have identified 8 dumb email mistakes you may be making (which is to say, 8 dumb email mistakes I have found myself making). Many of these mistakes apply to everyone, though some apply primarily to those of us who tend to sit at a desk most of the day.
1. You Check Email All Day
This is the most common of all email mistakes: leaving it open all day long and checking it constantly. I do not spend my days sitting outside the house, looking longingly down the sidewalk, hoping to see the mailman come walking into sight. I do not check my mailbox every five minutes all day long, hoping to find something good there. And yet this is exactly how so many of us behave with email. We monitor our inboxes constantly, hoping we will find something there, feeling the need to respond to every email as soon as it arrives. If this describes your behavior, ask yourself this question: Do I own email, or does email own me?
The solution is simple. Set aside specific times in the day you will check email and keep it closed at all other times. Most of us can make do very well even if we check only once or twice in a day. You may need to send emails throughout the day, but determine to check email only on a schedule. Here’s a hint: If you use GMail you should be able to use this URL to compose an email without seeing your inbox.
(I acknowledge that in some job situations you are required to monitor email all day. Even there, though, consider how you can bring self-control to bear.)
2. You Use Your Best Hours To Check Email
One of the most important things you can do for personal productivity is to reserve your best hours for your most important work. For some people those are hours late in the day; for most, though, they are the first hours of the day, somewhere between the second cup of coffee and the pre-lunch stomach rumbles. Unless email is the most important thing you do, keep it closed during those peak hours. Far better, go into those hours with a plan that will help you to use them well. If your peak productivity is between eight and noon, check email before or after that time, but not during it.
3. You Use Email For High Priority Communication
Email is a helpful medium for some kinds of communication, but a very poor one for others. It is at its worst when it comes to high priority messages and notifications. When we use email for high priority communication—family emergencies, church members asking for help from pastors, and so on—we are then forced to have it open in front of us all the time or to use notifications to alert us to each new mail.
Determine not to use email as your form of communication for emergencies or other high priority contact. If you have people who need to be able to get in touch with you at a moment’s notice, have them do it via phone or in person, not through email. This is crucial if you are going to reduce your dependence upon constantly checking email.