What is the biggest drain on your time each day? I’ll hazard a confident guess that email is up there. We spend hours and hours each day reading them, composing them and mindlessly pushing them around our Inboxes like food on a plate we have no appetite for. 

Imagine what we could build; how productive we would be; the impact we could make; and how profitable our businesses would be if we took back all the time we waste on email and, instead, spent it creating, problem-solving, learning, listening and contemplating. 

The number of email users and emails continues to rise. So does the use of mobile devices. Email is everywhere and it can get to you anywhere, anytime. Email isn’t going to respect you or your time so if you want to break out of the trap, you’re going to have to free yourself. There are endless articles about how to get control of your Inbox, how to get to Zero or why you shouldn’t get to Zero but getting control of email isn’t just about your Inbox – it starts with you. To break out of the email trap, you’ve got to be a good email citizen.

1. Get a handle on your Sent Items (stop breeding emails)

Have you ever sent an email that could have been a quick chat? Are you known for sending long emails? Do you spend an age composing those long emails? When you write emails do you think about what you want to say more than what the recipient needs to know and/or act on? Are your calls-to-action unclear? Do you sometimes send emails on like a hot potato, taking something off your To-Do list to put on someone’s else’s?

If you do any of these things, you’re part of the problem.

Emails breed like bunnies. The more you send, the more you receive, the more you receive the more you send. We all complain about receiving too many unnecessary emails but so often we are guilty of sending them too. To become a good email citizen, stop filling other people’s Inboxes and get a handle on your Sent Items.

2. Get a handle on your Inbox (be active, not passive)

Once you’ve got a handle on your Sent Items, you can get a handle on your Inbox. The key here is that you own your Inbox, it doesn’t own you – when you are in it, be in the driver’s seat – be active.

Earlier this year I wrote about how I’d learnt to make the same impact at work in half the time. One of the biggest timesavers was eliminating passive email checking. Time (and quality of life) literally disappears into the vortex when you’re a chronic passive email checker.

Do you have days where you feel like you got nothing done? I bet you spent a lot of it passively email checking. What about all those meetings (or family dinners) you were only partly engaged in? I bet you had your face in your phone… passively email checking. Passive email checkers are always busy. All that time they could spend on strategic, dial-changing work, or having genuinely quality time with other people (or themselves), they have their face in their inbox. I know because I was that person. You know if you’re that person too. When you check email – do it actively.

When you check email – do it actively.

Checking your email should be something you do consciously, intentionally and purposefully. Make that your singular focus in that moment and bracket it within a timeframe.

Personally, I make the first thing I do each day something meaty, strategic and creative. Email checking happens after the real work happens because it doesn’t require the best of my brain power. You might not have the option to ignore your Inbox in the morning so, if your job demands it, do a very quick, active skim at the start of the day to check for anything genuinely urgent and then close your Inbox. When you have time again (after some real work or conversation) actively re-enter your Inbox and actively deal with your emails. If you notice yourself scrolling passively, aimlessly – it’s time to shut your Inbox down again. Observe your habits and patterns and check yourself until it becomes second nature.

3. Get a handle on your boundaries (be a role model)

We teach people how to treat us. If we check our emails at all hours, people will quickly expect that you will check their email no matter what time it’s sent. If you respond to emails constantly throughout the day – people will expect to get responses from you throughout the day. Have you ever been chased by someone within an hour or so of them sending you an email – “Did you get my email?” The person who says this is probably a passive email checker who hangs out constantly in their Inbox and expects others to too. Demonstrate an alternative to the email trap by having boundaries and being a role model to others.

Demonstrate an alternative to the email trap by having boundaries

I’m not suggesting you ignore your boss, your team or your clients – have respect and use your common sense – but be judicious. If everything is urgent, nothing is urgent and if you’re always available, your time isn’t your own. This is extremely important if you’re a leader. If you send and respond to emails at any time of the day or week, you are sending a message to your team that you expect them to do the same – either you don’t respect your own time, you don’t respect theirs or both. The key here is being clear on your email approach – be transparent and be consistent. Perhaps your rule is no email after 5pm, or you only check emails after lunch, or you turn your work emails off on weekends and vacation. If something is really urgent surely a call trumps an email anyway? Manage people’s expectations and eventually they’ll respect your boundaries and act accordingly. 

Be a good email citizen, empower others to do the same and be the change you want to see in your office.