Optimize your life #3 – how to manage e-mail effectively (1/2)

A few months ago, I did a “Getting Things Done” presentation for the team here at SnapStream.  As I’ve mentioned before, GTD is a system developed by David Allen for organizing and dealing with your tactical commitments.  The presentation focused on two things…the concepts of Getting Things Done, and specific recommendations on how to implement Getting Things Done at our company.

The recommendations in the second part of the presentation were synthesized by me based around some simple concepts about communication and the various modes of communication we engage in.


So while this post is mainly about e-mail, I do need to set everything up with some background information first.

The concepts were:

  • Knowledge work requires large and uninterrupted blocks of time
  • Interruptions cost about 15 minutes of time
  • “Rich” channels are best suited for certain kinds of discussions, but also waste the most time.

The last point probably warrants some explanation.  “Rich” channels are those channels where you can communicate with more than just words.  Face to face is the richest, followed by phone, etc.

You often hear that anywhere from sixty to eighty percent of communication is non-verbal.  Zig Ziglar gives an excellent example in one of his seminars where he says a sentence eight different ways…and you’ll have to excuse me, because I don’t recall the exact phrase, but it goes something like

“I did not say that he struck your friend”

Try placing emphasis on different words of the sentence and you’ll see that the meaning of the sentence changes completely.  And that’s not all…gesticulations, the face…many factors contribute to our understanding of another person besides just actual words.

In the The Naked Face, a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell recounts how Paul Ekman, a professor who has researched and produced a complete catalog of facial expressions, has also actually mastered the ability to read people through those expressions.

The point is, non-verbal communication matters…and possibly more than you thought it did.

Anyway, moving forward.  The modes of communication were:

  • Meetings and conversations
  • Phone calls
  • E-mail
  • Instant messaging
  • Paper

And there’s the setup for my next few articles.

Let’s talk about e-mail, shall we? 🙂

We use Microsoft Outlook here, but many of these techniques can be translated to other programs…the concepts are what’s important.

Tip #1 – Define specific times to check your e-mail.

Which really means, don’t check your e-mail all the time.  The ability to maintain a singular focus is important in reaching your flow state…and if you maintain habits that constantly distract you, you’re simply doing yourself a disservice.  Checking your e-mail is often one of those habits.  See the 15 minute rule bout distractions above.

I recommend setting aside specific times of the day to deal with e-mail when you’re already breaking flow anyway.  Usually, that means when you get into work, after a meal, and perhaps, right before you leave.

Do you have people in your company that expect you to live on e-mail because they do?  Remind them respectfully of why you manage your time differently.  At SnapStream, we’ve tried to establish cultural boundaries about time…and that’s important, because a lot of people are just not comfortable saying “Hey, I’m not going to get to that until later” to other people. But respecting the time of your fellow coworkers and your own time as well is important. It has to be cultural at any company.  It has to be explicitly OK.

There’s only one good exception to this rule, and that’s when external customers or partners operate differently and expect instantaneous responses to e-mails.  In that case, the appropriate thing to do is to have a person in the company responsible for filtering and managing these communications so that the rest of the organization can get actual work done.

If you think that the above isn’t you and somehow you still need to live on e-mail, I’d strongly suggest considering your case for it.  Be honest with yourself.  Obviously,  I can’t tell you what side of the line you’re on, but what I can do is remind you that most people in an organization should not be living on e-mail.  So, at the very least, take stock of your organization and see if the percentage is too high…that might force you to think a little harder about who should be doing what.

Tip #2 – Disable automatic e-mail downloading and alerts

The corollary to not checking your e-mail all the time is that you must also make sure the e-mail program doesn’t keep checking your e-mail for you.  Again, the interruptions only serve to distract and break your focus.

Unfortunately, most programs enable these notifications by default, and that’s because, in general, people like programs that behave as if they are doing something cool.  Additionally, getting a new e-mail, for many folks, is the equivalent of a little digital self-validation.  It says, “Hey, someone out there might have liked me enough to e-mail me today.”

That’s good for warm fuzzy feelings…but taking hits from the digital crack pipe is hell on personal productivity.  And again, unfortunately, I have to be realistic here and acknowledge that the warm fuzzy feelings win out for most people.  I surmise that most people haven’t thought about their own productivity hard enough to derive any sort of pleasure from turning the notifications off…I’ve seen far too many people rationalize dumber things already.  So while I don’t like the default configurations of e-mail programs, I guess I can’t blame the companies who make the programs either…at a superficial level, it’s what people want.

Now on to specific recommendations for Microsoft Outlook.

First you want to go to Tools/Options.

Next, click on E-Mail Options.

Then, click on Advanced E-mail Options.

Finally, uncheck all those accursed notifications.

Congratulations, you’ve just freed yourself from the digital crack pipe!  Read and deal with e-mail on your own terms.

OK…this post is running long, so I’m going to split this into two parts.  Part 2 coming soon…

Update: The second part is now available.

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