The second largest regret people have on their deathbeds, is having worked too hard, says palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware. (The first: wishing they hadn't acted so much based on others' opinions.)

Our regret might be even greater if we knew that 60 percent of our work time was spent on email. It's like we've all become, what some jokingly call, CEOs--Chief Email Officers. As CEOs, by allowing email to take over the bulk of our productive hours, we're adding to our future regrets and damaging our present health by going into what writer and consultant Linda Stone describes as email apnea: "a temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing, while doing email."

If we spent less time on email, we'd be healthier by at least breathing easier and spend more time on things that matter more to us.

Tips for email management abound. Yet we still spend staggering amounts of time on our inbox. Not only because we receive tons of email but also because we can't help ourselves from constantly checking it. Curious about how some people manage to put themselves on an email diet, I surveyed the executives I coach and asked them to respond only if they considered themselves successful at slimming down their email or spending less time managing it.

Even the most disciplined email users mentioned that they fell off the wagon from time to time and spent large amounts of time processing email, but, like consistent dieters, they had succeeded in keeping off email weight over the long term. The executives who shared successful strategies reported being less stressed, more productive, and more satisfied with their work time because they'd tackled key priorities. They also had better relationships with co-workers because they'd freed up time for conversations rather than communicating mostly via their keyboards and screens.

How did they achieve such success? By following the ABCs of email dieting:

Agility

Many of my clients who responded don't use email for longer conversations or social communications--they do those face to face. To them, email is a transactional tool for simple questions or information sharing. Here are some creative ways in which they increase their email agility:

  • Leverage the subject line to describe the action required, due date, or other important details. Some emails can just be the subject line ending in "EOM" to indicate that's the end of the message.
  • Write emails that are no longer than five sentences. Explain this in the signature line. Communicate by other means if it's a longer message.
  • Create several templates to respond to frequent queries. You can even populate your templates in to several signatures. One click, and you're done.
  • For those friends and colleagues who keep responding to your email thread without new information, reply with a smiley face. It's harder for them to keep replying and it's fewer characters for you to type :-).

Breaks

It's helpful to break from email, allow yourself to ignore some emails, or let go of older messages. These breaks can be small and frequent or as long as a vacation. Your email signature can teach people how to treat you. One friend's signature states she's online 24x6 and not on Saturdays.

A consultant who works with large IT corporations says, "The one secret: amnesty. Every few months, I delete everything that's over 90 days old. I just delete it with no regrets. Nobody cares." Social media scholar, danah boyd, learned that setting expectations about her email sabbaticals reduced the number of personal emails she received from hundreds a day to less than a dozen.

Consistency

Everyone can adopt the right email strategy for a while, but the most successful leaders stick to successful habits. They reserve blocks of time each day to check email and shut down email at other times and notify others of their email hours in their auto-reply. They have a system in place for people to contact them in case of emergencies.

Device Jail

Survey respondents were more frequently able to detach from their devices. They had devised a variety of tactics for keeping temptation at bay, such as keeping devices off the conference table, banishing them from bedrooms, and even leaving their phones in their car trunks overnight. Even if it's only for short periods each day, they choose to imprison their devices rather than become prisoners of their devices.

Email Alarm

Research shows that we're addicted to email. We check email 36 times an hour and it takes us 16 minutes to resume other tasks once we've left our inbox. A common trick is to turn off email notifications to reduce distractions, but you can further reduce the frequency of checking email by setting an alarm every hour. When the alarm goes off, notice if you're catching yourself red-handed working on email and, if so, switch tasks.

Focused Priorities

Email super users are relentless about focusing on what's most important to accomplish. Some make a list of their top three priorities for the next day and don't switch to email until those are tackled. Others use productivity expert Francesco Cirillo's Pomodoro Technique in which they use a 25-minute timer to focus on a task without interruption. When the timer rings, they take a quick break. After several sessions or "pomodoros", they can take longer breaks. They use two pomodoros at most each morning for email. Knowing they have limited email time forces them to use some of the agility tips.

One reason we fail to kick unproductive habits is because often the payoff comes much later. However, following the ABCs of email dieting can help lighten your load right away. Through better management habits you'll be on your way to being a great CEO focused on productivity and better relationships.

Published on: Feb 13, 2017
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