Three rules of stress-free email productivity

Hey kids, this would have been the Weekly Head Voices #10, but since the past week can be really compactly summarised (4 hours of lecturing, 8 hours of lab supervision, 1 M.Sc. defense, 15 hours of meetings, 1 brilliant going-away party), I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to something completely different, something that one or two of you might even find useful!

Image copyright Grant Neufeld.

Image copyright Grant Neufeld.

I get to process quite an amount of email every day, and the amount seems to be increasing year after year.  Experience has taught me one or two hard lessons with regard to the efficient handling of said email.  Because I like you, I now give you my not-so-secret-anymore rules for stress-free email productivity!

1. Only check email when you actually have the time to take action.

This is the most important rule, and also the one I forget the most often.  The bottom-line is that you should only check your email if you have the time and inclination at that moment to take action on all of your inbox.  Taking action includes the GTD-style delete, delegate, defer and do possibilities, so for example chopping an email up into its constituent actions and sticking those in your todo-system (deferring) counts as taking action.  Under any other circumstances, don’t even check, as this will only serve to stress you out.  Conversely, following this rule will lead to having longer blocks of contiguous time to spend on tasks that you select, and not the crazy reactive work processing style endemic in the modern work place.

This rule is in practice nicely satisfied by the advice to make time for two or three distinct email processing moments per day.

2. Don’t use email as your main todo system.

Conversely put, have a good todo system that’s separate from your email.  This forces you to analyse emails during email processing moments and to break them up into the atomic GTD-style tasks that they represent.  You can always link the original email to the task, but the task description should be your main unit of work.  Seeing the same emails over and over increases stress and leads to unnecessary effort as you analyse them again and again every time that you see them.  Tasks, in general being more concisely described, are easier to start with and also increase the resolution of your accountable productivity.

3. Have separate work and non-work accounts.

Accidentally seeing one work email during your well-deserved holiday can spoil your mood. Maintain a separate email account for non-work (social) matters and make sure correspondents are aware of the difference.  This way, you can continue using email during rest periods without the risk of that one misplaced email putting you back in work-mode for the rest of the day.  This measure helps to maximise the value of your relaxation time.

Following the three rules above will also help a great deal in attaining and maintaining the nirvana that is inbox-zero.