Avoid that blinking light

A day at work can quickly become overwhelming unless one finds a way to balance the conflicting priorities of e-mail and the daily work agenda

Here is how Manasi’s typical workday looks like.

7:00am- Manasi wakes up and finds a red light blinking on her Blackberry. She checks her new e-mail and then gets ready for work.

8:15am- Manasi gets to work and opens her laptop. The first application she opens after her computer boots is Microsoft Outlook. She spends the next half hour skimming through the 100 odd e-mails she has received in the last 12 hours.

8:45am- Manasi gets into a meeting. Her Blackberry, meanwhile, continues to blink every now and then beckoning her to respond.

6:00pm- Manasi gets through the day clicking and responding to e-mails every time there is a little pop-up at the bottom right corner of her computer screen.

6:30pm- Manasi is home but continues to read, delete, or respond to her emails every time her Blackberry blinks.

10:30pm- Manasi is about to call it a day, when she realizes that she has missed sending her most important project of the day!!!

Every one of us experiences a similar day once a while. Most of us react to the little pop-up and the blinking red light the way Manasi does. Checking e-mails incessantly has become a part of our professional DNA.  While one cannot undermine the central role that e-mail plays in conducting our daily business, research indicates that bad e-mail hygiene can quickly become the singular reason for heartburns and stress. Literature suggests that apart from causing annoyance to colleagues and managers, excessive e-mailing may create an environment of politics and mistrust stifling productivity and efficiency within an organization.

Following are five hygiene factors one must exercise to become more efficient with e-mails and avoid losing focus on daily priorities.

Do not check e-mail the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night

Empirical evidence proves that it helps for a professional to come in a little early, and get things in order before starting off the work day. Checking e-mails the first thing in the morning, shifts focus away from the “important” to the “urgent.” Similarly checking e-mails the last thing in the night pulls forward stress from the next day. Prolonged stress is the single biggest reason for burnout and fatigue.

Do not plan meetings over e-mail

Meeting planning on e-mail starts with a harmless e-mail soliciting responses from colleagues for a time and date. After all schedules are mapped, a mutually agreeable time is decided. This is followed by a meeting planner that colleagues accept. Before you know, this process led to half an hour of your time and 20 fresh e-mails. What happened to the good old way of walking up to a colleague and asking for time?

Batch check e-mails at scheduled intervals

Experts suggest that e-mail creates a sense of “manufactured emergencies” that conflict with broad priorities. Rather than incessantly checking e-mails, stress psychologists suggest that one should make a practice of checking e-mails in batches. Such a practice leads to lesser distractions and helps one focus on the important rather than the urgent. While there are no magic numbers on how many time windows one should schedule for batch checking e-mails, experts recommend that they should be scheduled at least 30 minutes apart from each other.

Check the length of your e-mail

Web behavior analysts suggest that a reader tends to lose interest if the contents of an e-mail are more than one screen shot. E-mails are meant to be a communication tool, not a publishing medium. If the contents of the e-mail are too large to fit into one screen, it may be a better idea to put it all together in “Word” document and attach it.

Subject matters

A ‘Hi’ is a short for ‘Hello’ and it ends there! Most of us tend to focus on the contents of the e-mail without worrying too much about the subject line. Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts, Principal of business writing firm Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts & Associates, argues that the subject line is the most important part of an e-mail. Unless the subject line is captivating and directed, one cannot expect an apt and immediate reaction to it.

Empirical evidence proves that bad e-mail practices can be a primary source of stress and anxiety for an individual as well as his/her co-workers. The key to good e-mail hygiene, perhaps, lies in adopting a disciplined approach to follow the basic rules of e-mail hygiene. Such an approach can contribute to reducing stress and anxiety to a great extent.

The five tenets of e-mail hygiene

  1. Avoid prioritizing e-mails over your most important activities for the day
  2. Schedule meetings through collaboration platforms, such as IM
  3. Check e-mails in batches in regular intervals
  4. Avoid long e-mails
  5. Summarize the contents of the e-mail in the most appropriate subject line
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