Stay on Top of Email in 3x Per Day

Stay on Top of Email in 3x Per Day

(Justin DiRose) #1

Is email a problem for you? Do you sit with your email client open all day long, responding to messages as they come in? Or do you avoid email like the plague because the volume stresses you out?

I’ve had my days with email. I’m a supervisor in an IT service organization, and we deal with a ton of it. From client issues to technicians needing help, there is a never ending stream of email in my inbox. My thoughtless approach was to keep my email client open all day, check email every moment I had, and respond to everything as fast as possible.

As you can guess, this didn’t work so well for me. I found myself stressed, anxious, and constantly looking for the next fire to put out (hello, emergency scan modality).

Doing research on the subject of managing email, I found a myriad of different suggestions on how to handle email, most commonly checking it only once a day. In my experience, if you’re a maker, this works fine, but when you’re a manager who needs to respond to clients and employees, staying out of email most of the day does not work at all.

There’s a podcast called Manager Tools, one of the best resources on being a leader in an organization I have yet to come across. In one of their episodes titled Email Three Times a Day, they discussed how to handle the volume of emails while still being responsive and effective in your role.

The premise is simple:
Block off three 30 minute sections per day, and crank out all your email during that time.

There are a few mentalities and strategies this leverages:

  • Parkinson’s Law - Work expands to the time allotted to it. By having email open all day you technically allocate all day to work on email. By giving yourself only 90 minutes a day to get your email done, you will force yourself to get through it faster.
  • Batching - We all know we work better when we can focus on one thing at a time. When you can batch email to certain times a day, you don’t have to worry about it in between, and you can get it done faster.
  • Email is Not Urgent - Being asynchronous, email is not a platform to communicate urgency. If you miss an email that’s supposedly urgent, more than likely someone will find another way to contact you.
  • GTD/Task Management - This time is for processing and responding to email. If you need to do a task, capture it and do it later. Focus this time simply on responding to email. If that means to reply back, “I’ll look into it and get back to you tomorrow,” that’s better than letting a single email task blow up your day.

Specifics for Implementation

Here’s how I’ve implemented working with email three times per day.

I have three recurring tasks in my task manager to process email, one part of my startup routine which I complete every workday at 8am, one at 11am, and one at 4pm. The reason I’ve chosen tasks instead of calendar entries is my schedule often flexes heavily working in IT service. If I miss a window, I know the next thing on my list is to get through my email.

Then, I stick to it. No email outside of the block. When I’m in the block, I get to it.

I may break the process if I need to in a free moment, such as I need to send an important message out or update a calendar invite (since my calendar lives in Outlook), but I’m no longer living in my email all day. It’s refreshing.

Advantages and Challenges

My favorite advantage to using this approach is being able to frequently batch email. Since I started, I’ve found I can get through my emails, stay up on information I need to know, and then continue focusing on the work that matters, all in a short time period.

However, one of the major challenges is breaking the addictive habit of your email coming in and having new, shiny information to interact with every few minutes (or seconds, depending on how much email you get).

To break the habit, there are a few methods I’m using:

  1. Stick to email only in the allotted blocks.
  2. Get email off my phone.
  3. Turn notifications off.
  4. Set my email client to “Work Offline” outside of scheduled email blocks.

The last item is especially helpful. If I habitually check my email, I’m not tempted to start digging through it because there’s nothing there.

Having some strong parameters around when email can be done enables me to say “No” to the urge to just check it one more time. In case. As a result, my ability to focus has increased, and my stress/anxiety level has diminished in changing my habits.

So, how do you process email? Do you think this process could work for you?

Analog Revenge and MPU
A New Experiment with Discourse
(Mike N) #2

Yes, time blocking low value / reactive tasks work well. I also try to have a set time every day open in my schedule to handle as hoc discussions i.e. I don’t have any reoccurring meetings or focused work blocks between 11am and 12 every day. Folks learned I will take a call, respond to IMs quickly etc. during that window.

The other strategy here when that is a client or direct report interaction with SLAs is to solve it via process.

Are there any up and comers in your team that you can empower as a lead or unofficial junior manager? Let the first level of escalated requests hit them vs you. This is good for their development and allows you to focus on the truly urgent and big picture items.

If you receive the same or similar request within a defined period (week, month, quarter, whatever), this should trigger a process to have a FAQ updated, additional coaching, etc. Again a good task for your team leads to drive out on.

Fixing your bad habits is great. Fixing the process issues that drive your bad habits is better long term.

(Justin DiRose) #3

I totally agree and this is happening in my particular situation. Very good advice!

Exactly right as well. Unfortunately, I don’t have the power to influence some processes, but I can affect my ability to manage the outcome.

(Wilson Ng) #4

That’s the hard part. We consider a lot of our maintenance/administrative tasks as low priority. But someone’s gotta clean the bathroom. (sigh). Assigning a time block to just get these low value tasks out of the way is essential.

(Mike N) #5

Yup, I hear you on not being able to control everything. It is amazing what you can change though.

For several years, I was one of two people in the PST timezone in an org of 300. Everyone else was in Europe or EST. Every Friday from 1300 - 1600 I would just spend time automating, process improving, etc.

I started with things 100% in my control: What was I having to do regularly? Buidling a report that took 1 hour per week - could I get it down to 15 minutes? Answering status requests? Build a live dashboard. Having 20 hrs of meetings per week? Build better agendas to focus the calls, etc.

With any time I got back in my week, I would not take on more projects or direct commitments. I would invest it in fixing more of my process issues. Eventually that time moved on to solving similar problems for my team and then eventually the business unit

It was hard to commit to those 2-3 hours with other deadlines, but it was game changing.

(Justin DiRose) #6

So much truth here.

This is really awesome! I actually have a good chunk of time on my calendar blocked off to do similar tasks. It’s amazing what a couple of hours can net you.

(Curtis Spendlove) #7

Heh. I’ve been doing this with a Google Sheet (yes, I know) which pulls in (syncs, really) GitHub issues (summary data) and presents some extra columns to denote time estimations and actual time worked on issues.

It also breaks down budgeting / invoicing (we are a consulting company) which saves a lot of time monthly.

The manual one I had created shortly after starting my new role a while back was hailed as an excellent tool. But it took way too long to grab the data with Postman and massage it into an Excel sheet.

And then I thought…this could be rebuilt. :slight_smile:

Additionally to bring it back to email, I have a lot of automation setup around email. Some of this is “no-brained” sorts of things (like a mail rule that filters mail not sent directly to me into an “Inbox - CC” folder) and some is a more complex automation of status (inspired by Sanebox).

(Justin DiRose) #8

I do some of this too, except using Categories in Outlook. I found I didn’t really check other folders very much (or too much, just depended on the day). Instead, now when my mailbox looks like it blew up, I can sort by category and see some of the hot (or not) items to deal with more easily.

I don’t do much email on mobile anymore, but the downside of this workflow is Categories don’t sync to anything on mobile. This has always been a bummer for me.

(Joe Buhlig) #9

I’m curious. @Tyler_Weitzman, did you ever pursue the build on an email app? Would enforced email schedules (only allowed to check it at certain times) be a part of that concept? I could see something along those lines being of value.

(Tyler Weitzman) #10

We ended up building a sort of email messenger. It lets you message both with email contacts and with SMS contacts on the same application, UI formatted like a slack chat and with markdown support. Essentially the recipient either replies via SMS or replies via email on a single thread with the subject titled “Tyler <> Joe”. Works on web and iOS. The recipients can also join the messenger if they wish, with the added benefit of full search across the messages and tagging for messages. So you can tag any incoming message as #tasks or by topic #fitness etc. and then search by the tag and/or by a word in the message.

I agree that checking emails too often is a time and energy waste. I’ve never been able to overcome this personally though I have been able to reduce it using and using

(Joe Buhlig) #11

This sounds interesting. Not sure if I would use it or not but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Is this open source or public anywhere?

(Jennifer) #12

Turning off notifications was key for me. Once I stopped getting that rush of “oooo new message” I was able to step back and recognize that virtually none of the messages I deal with are truly urgent (except in the mind of the sender…). These days “do not disturb” is on by default and I only allow notifications for limited and specific reasons.

I read and handle email twice a day (lunch and afternoon) and most clients and customers respect that. But training them can sometimes take time. Many people treat email like it’s an instant messenger.

(Justin DiRose) #13

Agreed. And to be completely honest — I’ve had a hard time following this process. I work in a service organization and there is a lot of expectation to respond nearly immediately (or at least I perceive it). Tough to find a middle ground!