At some point during your work day, you're inevitably faced with a dilemma: Do you try to try knock out an important task…. or do you try to wade through your emails.There's no bigger time sink than trying to maintain inbox zero. In fact, my friend Julie Morgenstern wrote an entire book about the subject titled Never Check E-Mail in the Morning.
But is Julie right? Is it even possible to avoid your inbox in the morning? She is completely correct that we need to manage our time like we manage our money. But, like all good advice, we need to personalize it for ourselves.
The biggest problem with email from a time-management perspective is that it embeds messages that are urgent and important in with less urgent and less important items. If you've spent an afternoon putting out project fires, you know that some emails simply can't be ignored—especially when your decision-making is necessary to move an assignment along.
But what percentage of the emails that you receive throughout the day are actually red-alert important? If you're like me, it's probably a very small percentage. Yes, occasionally you get those bursts or crisis management alerts, but those should be pretty rare. (Chronic firefighting is an indication of larger organizational problems.) Lots of things appear urgent when they aren't urgent because next month is a long way off. And items that appear urgent to other people are not necessarily urgent for you—hence the classic line, "Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency for me."
Stephen Covey's time management matrix provides a useful structure for thinking about where email fits into your daily priorities.
Reactive tasks and requests (firefighting) that require your immediate attention.
Examples: Project management, Deadline assignments
Tasks that demand your attention but aren't ultimately that productive.
Examples: Responding to co-workers questions, Most call-in meetings
Habitual and proactive actions that strengthen your organization over the long-term.
Examples: Organizational planning, Exercise
Time wasting activities.
Examples: Facebook, Fantasy Football
The "important but not urgent" tasks often get pushed to the bottom of a to-do list in favor or responding to messages. That's a mistake we all make. But how can you commit time to more cerebral and thoughtful tasks if you're constantly flipping back to email?
I adopt an Option A or an Option B approach.
- Option A: Block out two hours a day—in a single sitting or standing—when you look at no electronic communications. I include phone calls in this. With the exception of your mother, everyone understands that you’re in a meeting for two hours. Make a deal with yourself that you will honor and commit to a two-hour block of time for uninterrupted work—and keep your word. It's true that you might miss an important message during this block… but so what? How many messages are really thatimportant.
- Option B: Check your email for no more than ten minutes of any hour. I actually bought a timer to set on my desk. When the alarm goes off: STOP. You find yourself very quickly able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Yes, the long email on the reasons the NFL draft needs to be changed falls to the bottom, instead of wasting time and being read.
Of course, you have to select an option each day and stay with it. I find that the inner calm these time-management techniques create is a powerful reinforcement for practicing them every day.