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Graham Allcott

Think Productive


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Trainer’s tip: How to take back control of your email inbox


Don't let your email stress you out. Graham Allcott provides five top tips to take back control of your email inbox.

We live in the information age, where information has never been so readily available. In fact, if anything it’s gone too far and most people these days are bombarded.  David Allen, the author of Gettings Things Done was asked in an interview recently what’s changed in the world since the advent of information technology and his response was, “Nothing.  Just the speed and volume of whatever we’re dealing with." This information overload – from email, and indeed from all sides – is a much bigger challenge than we realise.

Research carried out by the Universities of Glasgow and Paisley has discovered that one third of email users get stressed by the heavy volume of e-mails they received. 

"Regular checking is addictive and ultimately unproductive – we get obsessed with the latest and loudest, whereas by doing this we’re distracting ourselves from the less urgent but much more important work."

Whether you’re a trainer out on the road, working in a corporate office or working from home, email has the ability to cause significant stress, just as much as it has the power to be a key communication tool, providing flexibility and clarity. So here are five top tips to take back control of your email inbox.

1. Process, don’t check

We’re in a mindset and a working culture where instant equals good and delayed response equals bad. Now that might be a good yardstick for responding to the potential new client at top speed, but avoid the temptation to check, check and check. 

Regular checking is addictive and ultimately unproductive (recent studies have shown many people check between 30 and 40 times an hour) – we get obsessed with the latest and loudest, whereas by doing this we’re distracting ourselves from the less urgent but much more important work, work that usually takes place outdide of the email inbox.

2. Separate processing from archiving from doing

Microsoft Outlook and other leading email tools look pretty similar to when they were first designed. However, since that time, there’s been an explosion in the volume of emails we expect to receive each day. A significant cause of stress around email is uncertainty: your brain is not a good place for memorising lots of decisions you’ve just made, yet by trying to manage everything from the inbox space alone, we’re expecting ourselves to memorise which are actions, which are archive-able, which still require further reading, which require carefully crafted replies and so on. 

You need separate folders for each of these: sounds simple, but the mere act of moving emails to specific folders is a great way to make qualifying decisions about what each email means.  If the meaning is clear, we have no reason to stress. Speaking of which . . .

3. Keep your inbox at zero

If you’ve started to use folders to clarify meaning around what’s actionable, the next stage is to find the quickest shortcuts to all the stuff that doesn’t belong in anything remotely called "action".  As part of our workshops, we say that whilst the 80-20 rule may apply to paper or ideas, actually the 800-20 rule is closer to the mark when it comes to email. 

Finding shortcut "hacks" to get rid of as many of the regular causes of email noise is a great way to give yourself less to do each day and will set you well on the path to achieving the magical state of inbox zero. Since these things are all about habits, what starts off as magical soon becomes just a good way to be and over time, keeping your inbox at zero will feel like second nature.  Think about your phone voicemail inbox – you wouldn’t want to leave voicemails in there, unchecked, so why should email be any different?

4. Silence the pings

The other big cause of stress when it comes to email is distraction. Distractions and interruptions take up a significant part of our working day. Some of the biggest causes of distractions are actually things that we do have some control over.

Turn off the noises, flashes and other notifications when new incoming mail arrives.  It’ll help you avoid the temptation to wander off from the report you’re writing and find out who’s emailing you at that precise moment – and certainly help you avoid those middle-of-the-day sidetracks, reacting to all that new stuff.  And rest assured, you’ll come back and check your emails soon enough, so for now, keep focused on that report.

5. Turn it off

What are the five most exciting or amazing moments you remember from your career?  I’ll bet as you try to imagine your five, that none of those moments were the writing or receiving of emails.  Most of the amazing things we do happen outside of our email inbox. 

It can feel like a chain around our neck at times, and switching email off these days isn’t as simple as closing the lid of the laptop. But rest and relaxation are all part of the cycle that allow us to do great work and be present and fresh when those times come. So practise switching off more often – and we’ll see you on the other side.

Graham Allcott is a social entrepreneur and founder of Think Productive, a niche training consultancy that runs workshops on Getting Your Inbox to Zero.

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Graham Allcott


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