Mastering Your E-mail Inbox (and Life)!
Want to get your priorities and tasks under control to start off the year? This is the first part on a new series I’m writing on communication and productivity.
Part 1: Prioritizing
We’ve all had the feeling. Stuffed with holiday food, we begin to make a list of goals and resolutions for the upcoming year. Eat healthier and lose a few pounds. Organize the office and finish a couple of personal projects. Be a better friend, son/daughter, spouse or parent. Small things like that. : )
And then before we even have a chance to get started, we open up our e-mail inbox… and all the momentum dies. A wave of despair comes over us, as we see all the messages asking for a response. “How is it possible to start off a brand new year and already be behind?” we ask. Sometimes it can feel like we’re logging into a huge To-Do list every morning.
And soon enough, we get sidetracked. Long gone are those goals and resolutions that we were so determined to accomplish. It’s amazing how quickly they find their way onto the backburner!
We’ve all wrestled at one time or another with how to prioritize, and sometimes I’ve found my e-mail inbox is a symbol for how I’m managing my relationships and life. If I’m having trouble with my inbox, there’s a good chance that I’m having trouble managing the rest of my life as well. If I feel my inbox is under control, I’m usually prioritizing the rest of my life in a healthy way.
Yes… despite popular belief, I think it’s totally possible to keep our inboxes under control, and not let it rule our lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve responded to every e-mail right away, but that we’re managing our communication with intentionality.
We’ll cover some tips throughout this upcoming series, but none of those may help much… if we don’t first get to the root of why inboxes get out of control.
I’ve found there are 3 main reasons for this:
We’re saying “yes” to too many things.
If I feel I don’t have enough time for the things that matter most in my life (e.g. family, etc.), it’s a sign that I’ve overcommitted. The danger is this: the more we say “yes” without healthy limits, the more opportunities and people flock to us with more — and things can quickly spiral out of control. The good news? When we can appropriately say “no” and set healthy limits, people notice that too, and make adjustments that often lead to more balance and health for them, too. And we’re able to operate in a very manageable way.
We struggle to prioritize when to respond to people or situations.
Just because we can’t respond to an e-mail right away doesn’t mean that we can’t respond a few days later, even if just to write: “Sorry I’m slow to respond, but I’ll get back to you by early next week!” A late or partial response is usually better than no response at all. But sometimes if we get overwhelmed and feel we can’t respond in full right away, there’s a temptation to just give up and wait until a later date when we have things in order… which may never come at all. : )
If we’re prioritizing our lives well, we won’t be able to respond to everybody immediately. We’ll be leading meetings or spending quality family time, that isn’t always broken up by quick e-mail replies on our cell phones. We’ll be reaching out to a friend who’s having a hard time, before we respond to a generic request for help from someone we don’t know very well. Those are signs of a life guided by intentionality, rather than anxiety or sheer urgency.
We’re not blocking out enough time in our weekly schedule to manage our e-mails.
I try to do two things each week:
- I schedule time in my schedule to work on e-mail correspondence. I literally block off an hour during some days for this. I usually try to do it in the afternoons, and work on important projects in the morning, so that e-mail doesn’t become a distraction that drives my entire day.
- I try to schedule some buffer (e.g. 30 minutes) within each day to deal with any urgent and important things that inevitably come up. Occasionally this is an urgent work e-mail that needs immediate attention. Often it’s a request for help from my wife on something family-related. Sometimes it’s an opportunity that I see to call or e-mail someone who could use a word of encouragement. Of course, I can’t do it all… but I can often do something small once a day, or even once a week. We all know that the most important things in life aren’t always planned, so I like to leave margin in my day to able to respond and initiate in these moments.
If we don’t block out space for these things, it will be that much harder to prioritize our inboxes and our lives — and we may find ourselves constantly overwhelmed and feeling “behind.”
The good news is that we can take back control of our inboxes and lives… even one small step at a time! Aim to do one of these 3 things this coming week:
Say “no” to something minor.
Let’s assume you’re asked to do 5 things this week, between your work and personal life. Rank them in order of importance. Politely decline the item at the very bottom of the list.
Send an e-mail asking for more time.
If you just can’t get to an item and are tempted to not respond at all… simply write back, “I don’t think I can get to this right now, but can I get back to you by Monday? When do you need a response?”
Block out an hour on Monday afternoon, and dedicate it completely to e-mail correspondence.
Respond first to the e-mails that are most important, according to your judgment.
Every week, try to include one more of these items on your list — until it feels more and more natural for you. Soon you may find that these steps are decreasing the amount of work and busyness in your life — they should make your life easier, not harder in the long run!
In closing, I want to emphasize that managing our e-mail inboxes isn’t about technology, but it’s about relationships. So much of the way people relate to one another — especially across time zones and continents — is through e-mail. When I look at an e-mail, I try to visualize the person behind it. Good communication is about cultivating my relationship with that person.
Managing our inboxes is also about leadership, which is about not letting life and circumstances overwhelm and control our lives and decisions. Instead, we can take steps to prioritize what’s most important. Try taking one small step this week, and let me know how it goes!
Check back in weeks to come for more posts in this series.