Email is one of the central means of communication in our increasingly connected world, but as helpful as it can be, we can become a slave to it. Living increasingly distracted and rushed lives as we constantly check for new messages, email may impact our stress levels and productiveness.
When this happens, email becomes a mindless activity we find ourselves doing more and more throughout the day, but enjoying it less and less. Essentially, the more do it, the more unpleasant and ineffective it becomes.
Below are four steps for emailing wisely and effectively.
1) Attend to Objective First
It's easy to turn on the computer intending to compose and send emails that need to go out, but before we know it, we open new emails, follow a link in one, then quickly become snarled in the web known as the Internet. Before you know it, an hour has gone by and you've yet to attend to your task.
One helpful exercise is to write down, preferably in a notebook, the emails you need to send, including any thoughts for what you want to include in each. When you open your email, compose and send those emails before any other activity, including reading any new emails you may have received. Focus first on the emails you need to send and only then decide if other matters need your attention online, including reading new emails. Get the one thing done before tackling others.
2) Give it a Day
Most emails can benefit from having a day in between before responding. I sometimes break this rule when a situation is timely or someone has a simple question needing a quick response, but I find that most communication can wait a day. This helps in the following ways:
• It saves time as we may realize during this period that correspondence we initially thought needed a response actually did not.
• It slows the pace of communication so that it is not a continuous back-and-forth, encouraging thoughtful communication.
• It provides time for us to decide how we want to respond. What we feel in the moment after reading an email may not be the best response.
• It expresses that time is valuable - that we have other tasks to attend to. This will likely encourage others to be more conscious of the emails they send.
3) No Email Will Make Us Happy
Often there is a sense that a new email is either going to bring us happiness or misery. We often check our email non-stop hoping for some "good news," then find ourselves increasingly disappointed when it does not arrive.
Constant checking often distracts us from our other work and responsibilities. When we understand this, the addictive quality lessens. In fact, we could say that we start using it rather than it using us.
4) It is a Tool -- and only a Tool
Email is a tool that is helpful in some situations and unhelpful in others. A hammer, for example, is a great tool for pounding nails, but not so good for cutting wood or screwing in screws. Just as it would be difficult to try to build a house with only a hammer, so too is it ineffectual to rely on email as our only means of communication.
It could be that a phone call or simply walking over to a colleague and talking are much better ways to communicate. Such direct communication often addresses an issue more effectively than a whole slew of emails would.
I have no plans to give up my email, and I doubt most readers do either. It's a bit like a family member we may dislike at times, yet we know that they are in our lives to stay. The challenge is to notice when we use email and when it starts to use us. It doesn't ask us to check it at the expense of our other activities. We cannot blame it. We can, however, explore ways to successfully engage it, such that rather than be a mindless activity, it becomes a mindful and creative one.
Soren Gordhamer works with individuals and groups on living with greater mindfulness and purpose in our technology-rich age. He is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009). Website: http://www.sorengordhamer.com