Avoid These 5 Email Worst Practices

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Email is so common that we almost start to forget about it. Or rather we would if it would stop dominating our time. Here are five reasons why your email may be out of control and what to do about it.

You can Live (Better) without Email Notifications

I remember working for a technology company in the late 90s where one of the jobs was to hold “the phone.” The phone was a cordless phone line where we received all our technical support requests. Our contract required us to answer it within two rings or dire financial consequences for our company would ensue. The keeper of the phone usually kept it within arms’ reach on their desk or clipped to their belt. They ate with the phone. They went to the bathroom with the phone. (We tested the range to make sure it worked in the bathroom.) Not surprisingly, nobody really wanted the phone. It was nerve-wracking to be always on alert for rings. Some of us thought the whole exercise was pointless and insane, but at least the person with the phone was getting paid.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the preposterous has become commonplace. Now most of us have our own version of “the phone” and we answer it within two rings despite the fact that we aren’t being paid to do so. With email integrated into our phones, the temptation is to answer our email with the same rapidity as we do our phones. According to this story from CNN, the average worker is now receiving 147 emails a day. If our computer or phone bleeps for each and every one of them, then no wonder our attention span has been shredded.

Although it’s common to feel that email is urgent, most of the time it isn’t even important. Think about your own expectations for other people in responding to email. You may be different from me, but I’m usually satisfied when someone responds to my email within 24 hours. Think of it as the email golden rule: if you can wait for a given amount of time for a reply, most times, so can everyone else.

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Turning off email alerts confers a number of benefits above and beyond freedom from the incessant beeping. Some email looks urgent at first, but wait a while and you may hear something along the lines of “Ooops…never mind.” If you’re arriving at this email thread after a few hours, what used to be a problem is now already history with no intervention on your part. Waiting on your email also allows you to tackle a batch of mail more efficiently, all at one time, saving you repeated attention switches to and from your email application.

Scanning

If you decide to turn off email notifications, a strange thing may happen. You may start to look at your email for no apparent reason. Once again, phones make this habit all the stronger as now we can check email anywhere, at any time. Few people are immune. I’ve resisted looking at my phone several times already as I write this article.

In some ways, turning off notifications just activates notifications in your own head. Without the ping of new email, we feel as though we might be missing out, that if we just looked, we would see something important that needs our attention right away. Most of the time we are wrong, and the few times we are right, someone is probably trying to reach us by voice for truly pressing matters.

Scanning has all the same downsides as notifications: it shatters our attention and keeps us on edge for what might be next at the expense of what’s important in the long run. Breaking the habit of frivolously checking email requires both discipline and strategy. Common approaches include scheduled email times or even disconnecting from the Internet as a whole for periods of time.

Inbox as a Self-Storage Locker

For some of us, email became a central hub of attention at some point in the last two decades. Because we know we’ll be looking at our email often and soon, it becomes tempting to drop important bits of data into our inboxes in the hopes that we’ll see and act on what we leave for ourselves at some appropriate future time. In the material world, we usually have a similar inbox in our homes, usually near the door, where we drop our mail, our shopping, and various and sundry items, again with the idea that we’ll “get around to them.”

What happens all too often is that these piles get bigger and uglier. And when the inbox gets full enough, truly important stuff gets lost or forgotten. Worse, finding anything becomes more difficult and takes more time. The temptation to look away from the pile grows and grows. Eventually nothing gets done.

In practice, storing things in email can be effective as long as we have a strong agreement with ourselves that the pile must be dealt with regularly. Unless we have a plan to achieve that productivity catch-phrase “inbox: zero”, using email for storage is frequently a regrettable decision.

Email as an Organizational System

Before the rise of webmail, programs like Outlook, Eudora and Lotus Notes gave us hierarchical folder systems for sifting and sorting our email messages. Many took to these tools readily and created deep and complex structures for putting each message in just the right place.

Unfortunately such systems break down for a couple of reasons. Sorting email requires up-front attention and energy. If the backlog builds up too far, the folders can’t be trusted and we’re back to “inbox as a self-storage unit”. Another weakness comes from the fact that any sufficiently complex sorting system may have ambiguities in terms of where a given message should live. This makes sorting harder and finding slower. Modern conveniences like tagging and global search can help, and may make sorting more trouble than it’s worth at this point in history.

Email Instead of Important Work

Perhaps the most common and most insidious problem with email is that working on email looks and feels like doing real work. But unlike real work, we can read, sort, and respond to email without doing anything of lasting value, and if we’re honest with ourselves, a lot of the time we may be doing just a kind of evasion.

There’s no substitute for self-examination. If we ask ourselves regularly “is this work I’m doing now important?” then we have a fighting chance of stepping away from mindless email for the sake of looking busy.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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