Following on from yesterday’s post which highlighted the email deluge that’s drowning so many of us, here are the steps I take to hold back the flood. I’d love to hear what you do in the comments below.
1. I check email three times a day.
I do a quick check as soon as I get to my desk at 7:15 a.m. This is mainly to make sure there aren’t any urgent family messages from the U.K. overnight. I very rarely reply to any emails on this check, unless there is an emergency.
My second check is 12 noon. Again, I very rarely reply to anything on this check unless it’s something urgent from a colleague or in my congregation.
My third check is about 3 p.m. when I process all my email in one batch until (ideally) I have nothing in my Inbox.
2. I set a time limit of about 45 minutes to process email.
This deadline forces me to minimize the time on each email and squeeze in as many as I can within the time. I keep them as brief and to the point as possible. If there’s an email that’s going to take more time than usual, I will usually put it in a folder marked Friday. If there are emails I haven’t got to in that time, I usually just leave them in my Inbox until the next day and deal with them first.
3. Each Friday afternoon, I devote an extra hour to longer emails.
This is when I process my “Friday Folder.” These are emails that involve me doing some research or offering some counseling/pastoral advice. I usually process these in the order I’ve received them. Sometimes I get through three or four, sometimes less. If it looks like I won’t be getting back to somebody for a while, I’ll let them know that. I also use this hour to process any Facebook messages.
4. I check email twice at weekends.
I take a quick look once on Saturday and once on Sunday and very rarely reply to any.
5. I do not check email on vacation.
When I go on vacation, I set up an auto-reply specifying the dates I am out of the office and will not be responding to email. On the auto-reply I give the email address of my assistant, Sarah, and ask them to contact her if there is anything that cannot wait. She then decides whether to contact me by text or to just ask the person to wait.
6. I have standard replies for my assistant.
I have four to five standard replies for my assistant to send to common questions and inquiries. These include requests for counseling/advice, preaching/speaking, book reviews, book endorsements. I used to use this more and need to get back to it again (my fault, Sarah!).
7. I delegate some replies.
Sometimes I ask my assistant or a student to answer an email for me. I may give some brief guidance and leave the exact wording to them.
8. I delay some replies.
If someone is emailing me too much, I will often delay answering for a few days or a week or so. I don’t do this very often, but I have found that delaying replies lowers expectations and eventually reduces unnecessary emails.
9. I don’t feel obliged to answer every email.
Email has made it possible for just about anyone to access us at any time of the day (or night) with a request or a question that may take 15-30 minutes to answer. There have been times in my life when I could have filled most of my working day with answering such emails from people I’ve never known or met. I no longer feel obliged to do that. I used to feel guilty if I didn’t respond. No longer. My primary responsibilities are to the Seminary and congregation that have called me (and pay me) and I should feel guilty if I am not serving them in the way I have promised. So, often, I will ask my assistant to explain that I cannot answer due to my moral obligation to serve my employers.
10. I keep junk out of my Inbox.
This is a constant battle, but I regularly purge my Inbox to ensure that it’s not being clogged up with newsletters, offers, promotions, spam, etc. It’s too distracting when I’m trying to process real email.
11. I turn of all notifications.
I hate the idea of being constantly interrupted by beeps and banners on my phone or computer. I just think that’s insanity if we’re trying to do any worthwhile work and train our brains to think well and think deeply.
Hope some of these tips help you. I realize some of them may not be applicable in your situation. And, as I said, I hope you can give me some tips too.