Opening your email inbox is like being dealt a hand of cards. You don’t know what you’ll get; you may be caught off guard (pleasantly surprised, annoyed, or shocked); and you need to determine how to play out the hand you’ve been dealt. After a quick scan of your emails, you decide how to do that, e.g., I can play this one now; this one I will wait to play based on how things progress (others’ reply to all); and this one, I will play later because it will take some time to respond or to gather more information. While you’re tending to your emails, email notifications are popping up, and you find yourself distracted and have to rearrange how you will play out your email “cards” all over again.
Many workers today leave their email open in the background and have email notifications turned "on." This leads to distraction and stress as noted by Mark, Voida, and Cardello (2012)1 in a study that showed without email, people multitasked less and had a longer task focus.
They also found that stress, measured by heart rate variability via heart rate monitors, was lower without email.
In another study by Dawson and Wilson (2003)2, they discovered that on average, it took employees 64 seconds to recover from an email interrupt, i.e., to return to their work at the same work rate at which they had left it.
One way to eliminate email stress and distractions would be to not have email at all. Of course, that’s not a viable solution because email does have value in the workplace, such as:
- Quick mode of communication to a colleague down the hall or in another state or country.
- Allows us to keep electronic records at a lower cost than paper files.
- Group messaging for quicker collaborations/approvals in lieu of scheduling a meeting.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections: 2014-24 Summary, health care occupations, be it support, practitioner, or technical roles, are projected to be the fastest-growing groups through 2024. What does that mean for you and me?
More people in our industry = more emails every day = more stress.
We could alleviate that stress by breaking our bad email habits and employing effective email-management strategies and tips.
Inbox Zero, created by productivity expert Merlin Mann, is one such email management strategy. Inbox Zero is not about having zero emails in your inbox (although that could happen). It’s about spending little to zero time in your inbox. In other words, think of your inbox as a temporary holding place for emails that, like getting dealt a hand of cards, you sort through quickly to: 1. Take immediate action (requires <2 minutes), 2. Defer to another time (waiting on information from others or will take >2 minutes to create your reply), or 3. Store in a folder for reference at a later time.
Tips that could help you spend less time in your inbox:
- Don’t leave your email open and running in the background all day: Schedule 2 or 3 times during the day to check your email. My colleagues know that for urgent needs, they should call or page me instead of sending an email.
- Turn off desktop alerts: If you're thinking, "I have to leave my desktop alerts on so I will know when my boss emails me,” consider turning them off and then create an email rule to play a sound or provide an alert for emails from your supervisor.
- Save attachments from emails: Do you save emails in your inbox just to keep an attachment? Instead, save the attachment and delete the email.
- Change the subject line for better searching among saved emails: Subject lines that don’t accurately describe the content of the email can be frustrating when searching for that email later. Consider changing the subject line for easier searching.
- Create sorting rules: Try creating a rule to send emails from a particular sender or with a specific subject line directly to a folder rather than into your inbox. For example, create a rule that would send AMA journal emails directly into a folder titled “Journals,” and then, schedule a time to look in that folder each week.
- Set reminders on your email: Do you use your inbox as a "to-do list"? How often do you forget to do whatever it was you were supposed to do? Reminders are a way to set an alarm on an email to ensure you don’t forget about it.
And to close, in the spirit of my last tip:
- Be brief: Use single, simple sentences and bullet points when possible. The less we say, the more powerful our words are.
- Mark, G., Voida, S., & Cardello, A. (2012, May). A pace not dictated by electrons: an empirical study of work without email. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 555-564). ACM. Retrieved from https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/CHI%202012.pdf.
- Jackson, T., Dawson, R., & Wilson, D. (2003). Reducing the effect of email interruptions on employees. International Journal of Information Management, 23(1), 55-65. Retrieved from http://jamesclear.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/email-multitasking-study.pdf.