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  • Writer's pictureDr. Nathan T. Morton

Managing The Tyranny of Email

“To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.” These are the words of Cal Newport from his noteworthy book Deep Work.

Here is an oversimplification of Newport’s premise. Our concentration is so fractured with interruptions that to increase the depth and quality of our work we must greatly reduce those distractions. One of the distractions Newport addresses is email, which he uses as a case study.

Email is a minor topic in the book, but I believe his treatment of it could be very helpful to many people who might never read this excellent work. (You can purchase the hardcover, kindle, or audio book here.) The information in this article comes entirely from Deep Work.

Ten years ago, a McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker spends close to 30 percent of their time dedicated to reading and answering emails. Deep work has been replaced with the shallow alternative of constantly sending and receiving email. Because of this, larger efforts get “fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.”

Tom Cochran became alarmed that in a single week he received 511 emails and sent 284. This came to an average of 160 emails per day. (Article here) Calculating further Cochran noted that if he managed to spend only 30 seconds per message this still added up to almost 1.5 hours each day dedicated to “moving information around like a human network router.” He discovered that his employer, Atlantic Media was spending well over a million dollars a year to pay people to process emails. This provokes the question: What is the impact of our email habits on the bottom line?

Cal Newport notes that none of us can completely avoid email, but this doesn’t mean we have to allow it to overly consume. So, he gives his readers three tips for regaining authority over this technology.

Tip #1: Make People Who Send You Email Do More Work

  • Don’t answer questions you know the sender could answer themselves with a little work.

  • Don’t answer questions already asked and answered.

  • You can add a polite disclaimer to your email including helpful suggestions such as “don’t email what you can text” or “this email is used primarily for business matters.”

Tip #2 Avoid Productivity Landmines

Here are three examples of standard emails:

  • Email 1: It was great to meet you last week. I’d love to follow up on some of those issues. Do you want to grab a coffee?

  • Email 2: We should get back to the problem we discussed during my last visit. Remind me, where are we with that?

  • Email 3: I took a stab at that article we discussed. It is attached. Thoughts?

How you respond to these emails will have a significant impact on how much time and attention they consume.

Interrogative emails like these generate an instinct to dash off the quickest possible response that will clear the message—temporarily—from your inbox. The relief however will be short lived as this responsibility will bounce back again and again, continually soaking up time and attention.

Newport says the right strategy when faced with an interrogative email is to pause for a moment and ask yourself, what is the work effort or process represented by this message and what is the most efficient way to answer it in a way that will bring this email chain to a successful conclusion.

Once you’ve answered this question for yourself instead of a quick response, describe the work or process you have identified, point out the current step, and emphasize the step that comes next.

Using the three email examples above Newport offers suggested responses that illustrate his strategy.

  • Email 1: I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at Starbucks. I’ve listed two days next week when I’m free and three times for each day. Let me know what works for you. I’ll consider your reply as confirmation for the meeting.

  • Email 2: Sometime in the next week email me everything you remember about our discussion on the problem. Once I receive that message, I’ll start a shared document that summarizes what you sent me combined with my own memory of our discussion. In that document I’ll highlight two or three promising next steps.

  • Email 3: Thanks for getting back to me. I’ll read this draft and send you an edited version annotated with comments on Friday. In that version I’ll edit what I can do myself and add comments to draw your attention to places where I think you are better suited to make the improvement. At that point you should have what you need to polish and submit a final draft. No need to reply to this message or follow up with me after I return the edits—unless of course, there is an issue.

Newport calls this the process-centric approach and he believes it will reduce the number of emails in your inbox by closing the loop. “When a project is initiated by an email that you send or receive, it squats on your mental landscape—becoming something that’s now on your plate.” Newport’s approach is designed to keep nonessentials off your plate.

The process-centric approach might not seem natural at first because it will require you to spend more time thinking about messages before you compose them. You may even feel you are spending more time than before. In fact, the extra 3 minutes spent at this point will save you much more time later.

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

  • If the message is ambiguous or makes a reasonable response difficult, don’t respond.

  • If the message is regarding something outside the scope of your obligations, assignment, duties, purview, or occupation, don’t respond.

  • If nothing good is achieved by a response or nothing bad happens without one, don’t respond.

In all three cases there are many obvious exceptions. If an ambiguous email comes from your company’s CEO, you’ll respond. However, beyond obvious exceptions becoming more intentional before you click ‘reply’ will prove valuable for you and your company.

Newport’s approach may be uncomfortable at first because it goes against a key convention regarding emails: replies are assumed regardless of the relevance or appropriateness of the message.

Some people might even get confused or upset at this approach, but you can’t control the response of others. However, once you get past the discomfort of this approach, you’ll begin to experience its rewards.

In a business setting, without a clear understanding of the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest and sometimes least productive. (p. 58)

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