Experts Agree, Don't Start The Day By Answering Your Email Jul 28th 2013, 12:08
There are tons of books about time-management, but increasingly I hear the topic discussed in terms of energy management. Our minds, the thinking goes, only have so much capacity for any one type of activity, so we have to build that limitation into our daily routines if we want to work effectively. Our email inbox may seem to be our highest priority, but "inbox zero" can lead to "energy zero" if you are not careful.
I just finished reading a new book by 99U called Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind. The recurring advice across many of the 20 experts who contributed essays to the book was simple: don't start the day by dealing with your email. Instead, the experts overwhelmingly suggest that you start with your hardest work of the day and defer the distractions of email for later.
In some work environments this may seem impractical, or even impossible, but the principle can be applied to any situation. In some cases, the answer may be to get to work early in order to carve out some sustained thinking time at the start of the day. For others it is just a matter of retraining yourself to not assume that the priorities of your inbox match up with your own personal goals and responsibilities.
We start with email is not only because we need to respond to others, some of them clients or superiors, in a timely manner, but also that re-acting is easier than pro-acting. Generally whatever is most important to do is difficult and requires skills that one uniquely possess. That is why it is your work. As much as we may revel in our individuality, expressing that individuality—especially in corporate situations—can make us feel vulnerable and exposed.
A report from McKinsey last year estimated that the average knowledge worker spent 28% of their workday on email. Tech consultant Linda Stone has coined the term "email apnea" (and the more general "screen apnea") to describe the curious behavior that most of us display when reading email and other screen related tasks: we actually hold our breath. And like sleep apnea which is responsible for a host of maladies, email and screen apnea sap our energy and increase our body's tension.
So beyond the suggestion to not let others shape your own priorities, starting your day with email can literally have a detrimental effect on the rest of your day. Best-selling author and founder of The Energy Project, Tony Schwartz, argues that we have to build renewal of our energy into our work day. Scott Belsky, co-founder on Behance and now VP of Community at Adobe, recommends not reaching for your smartphone in the interstices between meetings, but rather to allow for some unstructured time for your mind to both recharge and also absorb what just happened.
Taken as a whole, the suggestions in Manage Your Day-to-Day urge us to take responsibility for our own time and energy by not letting email or other forms of reactivity blunt our focus. It is, of course, important to be responsive to other people, but as James Victore writes, "we are losing the distinction between urgent and important—now everything gets heaped in the urgent pile." As hard as it may seem to buck the trend and not answer every message immediately, your assertion of priorities will make it easier for your co-workers to assert theirs.
The more people in an organization who take this approach, I think, the less superfluous emails will get sent. If you don't assume an immediate response you will often just figure it out yourself. Voilà, one less email exchange! Taming email is a group endeavor, but it starts with you.
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