The Hare and Tortoise System for Managing Email Overload

Emails are the albatross around every knowledge worker’s neck. They drag you down, overwhelm you, and sink you into an abyss of stress. They create a chain around your neck, attaching you to your inbox. The chain only seems to get harder and harder to break. Where will it all end? When will you get better at managing email overload?

The biggest challenge at work is fast becoming that chain. Workers feel chained to their emails. According to Blue Hornet, over a third of people check emails throughout the day. Are you stuck in your inbox, bearing the weight of that chain? If this is you, you are not alone, and you are killing your productivity in the name of managing your email overload.

Read on to look at why you’re chained, how and why you’re killing your productivity and how the Hares & Tortoises email management system can help.

What do the Psychologists Say?

Nancy Colie in ‘Psychology Today‘ says “lottery brain” is the problem. Nancy shares that the reason you check your email constantly is because it is an addiction.

Addictions don’t make rational sense. They are born from repetitive behavior. The deep psychological reason behind why you check your email is akin to why some people gamble. You have the hope of something exciting. In the case of email – a job offer, an email from a friend, a sales win, or gratitude.

Even those these instances are rare, you continue to repeat the behavior. Like pulling the arm of an old gambling machine, you say “I know that I’m unlikely to win, but what if I do?!” That’s what goes through your irrational animal-like brain.

If you think about it, your experience of the lottery brain is probably that it is very real. In your corporate job, you get to the office, grab a tea, throw some cereal in a bowl, and sit at your desk looking at your inbox.

You try to ‘clear your emails’ before your first meeting, though, if you look back, that never really happens. Your inbox just seems to grow. You answer the easy ones. This is what the time management guru’s call “QFE”, starting with the Quick, Fun, and Easy.

Do you know what deep work is, or are you just fighting all day long to stay ahead of the game? Are you trying and often failing to “stay on top of your emails” hoping for a long run (A day without meetings) where you can get to less than 50 emails in my inbox. That feels good, but it is as common as Haley’s Comet!

Nancy further explains that the first step is to change is awareness. You start by noticing the impulse to check your email inbox and checking in with yourself to ask “Why.” She writes “getting to know the beast is the first step in taming the beast.”

Is Your Productivity Truly Affected By Managing Email Overload?

The answer to this question is a resounding yes. “Based on over a half-century of cognitive science and more recent studies on multitasking, we know that multitaskers do less and miss information. It takes time (an average of 15 minutes) to re-orient to a primary task after a distraction such as an email. Efficiency can drop by as much as 40%.”, writes Paul Atchley in the Harvard Business Review.

Every time that pesky email notification pops up to say you have a new email, you start multi-tasking. One of the biggest myths is multi-tasking. If you believe in multi-tasking, then Loch Ness is worth seeing for its monster is fabulous.

Multi-tasking is the ability to do two things well. The research says that unless the tasks require very little intelligence, like unloading the dishwasher whilst speaking to your spouse, then you risk doing two tasks with only the intelligence of a 12-year-old. And yes, that even applies to women.

Whilst females can multi-task better than men, neither gender can multi-task effectively on two tasks that require the super intelligent brain you were hired to use at work. All the time management skills in the world won’t change this fact.

Each knowledge worker receives 88 emails per day. This is the main cause of multi-tasking. Emails. You do it – Focusing on a task, trying to get it done well because it is important, but also trying to keep one eye on your inbox. This isn’t helped by those ever so annoying, must look at notifications. So, the average is 88 emails per day.

That’s something waving to distract you every five and a half minutes. So, if Paul is right, that it then takes 15 minutes re-orient, when do you get your deep work done?

“There is a cost to task switching,” says Cal Newport, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, and the author most recently of ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’. The challenge is that in today’s world there are so many distractions that you struggle to do the meaningful work (deep work).

The work that Pareto’s rule would suggest makes 80% of the difference to our performance. Instead, you are ‘busy’ working on the 80% that only makes 20% of the difference to your performance.

Email is the biggest distraction in the workplace. There has never been a productivity tool that has been more used and yet used badly, than email. Imagine a carpenter with a blunt saw. This is Outlook, Gmail, and every other email system. Yet, a bad workman blames his tools.

Using the tools better is the key. Stopping to sharpen the saw, as Stephen Covey advised in Habit #7 of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, is the key.

Sharpen the Saw…

Imagine a clock face in two parts. Refer to the fable of ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’. If you don’t know it, a quick recap. The hare and the tortoise challenge each other to a race. As they race, the hare gets so far ahead that he takes a nap. Meanwhile, the tortoise takes it “slow and steady,” eventually overtaking the napping hare and winning the race.

From 12 to 12:20 is the Hare time. From 12:21 to 12:59 is the tortoise time. Bring the clock to life by imagining the hare running in that 20-minute segment and imagine the tortoise walking steadily in the 40-minute segment. Managing email overload is easier when you are forced to prioritize.

This is a new way of looking at your emails. The challenge is to do so because it enables you to do the deep work. Be less distracted, and yet still manage your emails. Using the hare and the tortoise system will help you to achieve this.

Using the hare and the tortoise email management system is simple. If the time is between the hour and 20 past, look at your inbox. Work fast, aiming to clear as many emails as possible in 20 minutes. Know that you only have 20 minutes and can only do emails for that long.

If the time is between 21 minutes past and 1 minute to the hour, do the deep work; Projects, Strategic Thinking, Mind Mapping, Solving Problems – In essence the big stuff that you keep putting off.

What You Are Probably Thinking

“Ah, but you don’t know my clients and our business”.

You’re right. No one does. With that said, you do want to be more productive because you want to deliver more and be more satisfied at work. The illusion of productivity will not achieve that because you cannot do the deep work. The work that makes the real difference if you are distracted every 5 minutes. So what’s the answer?

Identify the two or three people that believe that when they email you they should get a response within 15 minutes and arrange something different. For example, in your next meeting, explain that you want to be more productive for them. Therefore, if it is urgent, they should text you.

If you’re now thinking “you still don’t know my clients or our business” you’re still right. If you truly need to be in your inbox then 3 things need to happen:

  • Cancel lunch, unless you have it at your desk every day.
  • Cancel any meeting over 15 minutes.
  • Cancel all holidays.

Unless you made arrangements to cover those 3? Of course, you did.

First Step

Draw a clock on a post-it note with two segments on the clock face. Write ‘H’ in the 12 to 12:20 segment and ‘T’ in the 12:21 to 12:59 segment. Put the post-it note where you can see it throughout the day. Be the Hare or the Tortoise!

Many businesses find themselves flooded with emails, making an email marketing specialist necessary. If you want to increase your worker’s productivity, following this system and hiring consultants to help with managing email overload will save you time and money.

If you want more information on finding the help you need, check out our business resource page. You’ll find helpful information like this that will take your productivity to the next level.

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