Less-Email–an update at two weeks

May 22, 2007 by Jared Goralnick

I’ve been attempting to stick with the less-email approach for the last two weeks and it’s been generally helpful. However, I’ve had to violate the number of times I check email and ran into some surprises. I’m also not sure whether it’s a good idea to restrict yourself in certain circumstances or just to go with the spirit of the idea. Anyhow, here are some realizations after checking email mostly-twice during the work day for a couple weeks.

Lesson 1: Email is always a distraction. If you’re working on something it’s never a good idea to check your email and get distracted.

Challenge: Some tasks merit fast-paced email exchange or require a response via email. Sometimes an email message in the morning relates to an appointment in the afternoon. But looking for one email typically results in receiving more than you wanted.

When I initially communicate with a prospect or a client, I want to impress them with responsiveness…and I feel I can achieve that (to some degree) with quick email back-and-forth. I’m also not yet in a position to explain to them my new “philosophy of email” and thus why our email exchange may take a while. And, as for project-related emails, as deadlines are coming I feel that it’s of crucial importance that I receive them.

Possible Solutions:

  1. OUT OF OFFICE RESPONSE: I could, as Tim Ferriss suggested, create an “Out of Office Response” that tells people my email strategy. That would solve the “appointment confirmation” problem but it could still weird-out a new prospect and I’m not sure how well it’d help in a project-based situation–the sender might not be aware of the significance of their input into my work.
  2. COMMUNICATION: For starters, telling people about your process is a good thing. Especially your co-workers. Right now I’ve only told a few people about my approach because I wasn’t sure that I was going to stick with it. But now I realize that checking email twice (or at least not until around lunchtime) is magnificently liberating (I actually get stuff done in the morning!)…and I’m going to tell a lot of coworkers and clients. Though it doesn’t solve the “new clients” problem, it’ll resolve 80% of the communications issues, as those are with the same small group.
  3. FUDGING WITH DISCIPLINE: There are going to be times when you need to check your email. Just try not to pay attention to anything else when you’re looking for that one message.
  4. THE IMPORTANT DUDE: Have someone else check your email (frequently) who is familiar with your process. If a really important message comes in (they’d have to fully understand what really important means!) then they’d let you know. I look forward to that day…

Lesson 2: Breaking the system for seemingly logical reasons is risky.

Challenge: It seems that when you’re in transit or in between tasks that email won’t take away from something else and thus it’d be perfectly fine to check it now. However, when you do check your email you may be surprised by something that changes your mood or makes you realize you really had to do something. Unfortunately when we’re between things we don’t have the luxury to respond to pressing or emotional issues.

This week I was working with a client in a conference room and things were moving very slowly–they hadn’t prepared for the meeting and had to do a few things on their laptops before we could actually get to work. So I figured, why not check my email?

In Outlook I found a message about a project I’d recently won with a major client, though they had placed all of the Terms and Conditions into their own language. They had added a “Work for Hire” clause, indicating that our training material was “Work For Hire” and, as such, that they could rebrand and reuse it. Now I’m cool with people having issues with some of my terms, and I recognize that the contracting officer probably just plopped our contract into his template which already had that clause…but it still royally irked me. When I communicated (somewhat strongly) with the CO about why our work was not Work for Hire they just removed the clause without a question (our material is usually treated like a book–you get a certain number of copies)…but, again, it really changed my mood and I felt the need to respond then and there.

This kind of stuff happens all the time when we check our email: things surprise us and change our mode of thought.

Possible Solutions:

  1. BE PRODUCTIVE NOT RISKY: The goal of checking email when you have free time is to use that time wisely. So be wise–have a book or other task ready for you. Maybe file some things, clean up, work on a task that’s not super thought intensive but needs to get done. But whatever it is, don’t check your email because there will often be surprises that change your current state.
  2. CREATE A BARRIER: Don’t turn on automatic download of email messages in any of your portable devices. Put a password on your email application. Don’t carry your cellphone when you go into a client’s. Whatever it is that makes it just a little more difficult to check your email–that’ll make it much less likely to happen.

I have many more lessons to share and some specific practices I’ve tried…but at 9:30am I’d really best be getting some work done. Stay tuned…and don’t check your email.

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3 Responses to “Less-Email–an update at two weeks”

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  1. kira

    As we talked about last week, not every job can be done while you’re offline for half the day. And not every day is the same on every job.

    So over the last two weeks I’ve tried to be mindful of the spirit of the tip — the classic time-management exhortation to not let other people set your priorities. It’s been helpful for me, though not revolutionary.

    So I’m back to the Franklin system of having time blocked off to work on a specific project. During that time, I resist the urge to check mail every five minutes, and only do so when it doesn’t interrupt my train of thought too much.

    When I do check email, I scan for urgent things and not let myself get caught up in anything that can wait. But sometimes an item comes through that is genuinely more important than the project I’ve slotted the time to. And if it does, then answering the email is the right thing to do.

  2. Jared Goralnick

    You’re right, Kira, and given our conversations about this it’s clear that you have a very different relationship with your coworkers than I do.

    You’re also right that things will come up that are more important. And, to some degree, that’s good to know about them sooner. The catch though is just how important is really important?

    The message in Tim’s book is that really important stuff is rarely that important. And this is a moot point that we could debate ad infinitum, but that’s my one tidbit to share here.

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