If someone asked you to guess what the average person does for six hours per day, what would come to your mind?

Social media? Nope.

Play video games? Watch videos or TV? Nope and nope.

The answer would be the average time spent in your email.

More than 50% of people check their email before they even get out of bed in the morning. That number increases to 70% for Millennials.

We can’t even get away from our inboxes while on vacation, where over half of people admit they still check email regularly – when they should be recharging and out of the office.

I’ve had executives flip out after I’ve required them to put away their phones for 60 minutes. Mind you, this is during a session where they’re paying me to drive their personal growth.

Email is the Sisyphus allegory of the 21st Century. Because of our misconceptions and unhealthy boundaries around email, there is never enough when it comes to “progress” in your inbox. The more replies you get out, the more emails that come back your way. The faster you send those replies out, the faster your inbox fills back up.

The concept of “Inbox Zero” is killing us a little more each day, so it’s time you reassessed your relationship with and practices around your inbox.

What is email’s purpose in your world?

Let’s get real about the purpose of email in your life, about what it’s meant to be and what it’s not meant to be. You’re ability to reimagine your relationship with email begins here.

What Email Is

Email is a tool for communication – but not all forms of communication. Status updates are a great example of appropriate email usage. Do you want to take a few sentences and let your team know a few steps in progress you made on a key initiative? Awesome. Do you need to check in with a team member to get a quick update? Great.

Do you have a quick question for your boss, or for another team member? By all means drop it in their inbox, so long as their expected response isn’t either urgent or requiring more than a few sentences. Otherwise, get up and go ask the question in person or take a few minutes to pick up your phone and call them. You’re going to hear this phrase again – “Get Up or Pick Up”. It’s what I use to get my clients to break some of their chains of email bondage.

Did you recently complete a memo for the purpose of updating your department on a new policy? If the memo aligns well with past decision-making frameworks and won’t require considerable new ways of thinking, then email works for its delivery. Or, if the memo isn’t expected to meet with much controversy. Otherwise, you might want to either wait for the next departmental meeting so you can cover it in person or just call a dedicated meeting so you can have appropriate space to process its contents with everyone.

What Email Is NOT

Email is not the space for critical conversations. I cannot freaking repeat that enough. Here is a simple question to ask yourself when considering sending an email to someone that could qualify as a critical conversation:

Will this email surprise this person / these people?

If the answer is yes, then you seriously need to check your own motivations for choosing email as the format for the communication. Are you choosing to send an email out of avoidance or cowardice? It’s not a comfortable question to ask yourself, but it’s essential for healthy relationships and high performance. Telling your team they have to be at work by 745am everyday after they’ve spent years coming in throughout the morning before 830am, that’s going to be a huge shock. That’s a conversation you would want to first have in person with everyone, hear and address concerns, and then send the email to everyone. In this case, the email is serving as a documented form for the updated policy and not as the primary method for communicating it.

Leadership does not exist in an inbox.

Empathy does not exist in an inbox.

I will be the last person to ever advise someone to have more meetings for the sake of having more meetings. But I also understand the power of team behaviors that occur within focused and understood spaces. I’ve taken teams and implemented 10-15 minute morning huddles that consequently resulted in dozens of fewer daily emails and won them back hours of lost productivity.

What is the purpose? Is the action fulfilling the intention? You have to become obsessed with these questions.

Email and Urgency – Let’s Get Real

The level of stuff we infer into email is crazy – urgency, importance, emotion, and more.

Inevitably, we come to find we made so much out of so little.

There are a few psychological reasons behind all of this. We hunger for worth and importance, and email is always there providing us the next opportunity to receive or prove that worth. It’s the ultimate illusion of productivity, though. The urgency and importance we were placing upon that boss’s or client’s request wasn’t shared by them, after all. But, man, it feels so good to get that response fired off and original email deleted, to see that all take place visually with the corresponding tactile gratification of clicking the mouse.

All of that perceived importance and gratification creates an actual addiction, too. Every time you partake in this behavior you’re creating a burst of dopamine in your brain. This is the neurochemical responsible for driving behavior and fueling habits, as it plays a critical role in reinforcement pathways. There is an anticipation and reward loop that takes place here. You see or hear an email notification on your computer? Your performance is toast. Your brain drives you to see what interaction is waiting on you, and then addressing the email drives the feedback loop to completion and reinforces the counterproductive behavior.

Email as an Enabler of Healthy Habits

What if you flipped the script on its head, though? What if you used email as the crux for the development of healthy behavior?

Earlier, I mentioned the “Get Up or Pick Up” strategy that I share with clients, and this is an example of using email as the focus for improving your relationships. How do you know when you need to get up and go ask or pick up your phone to call? Here are three situations where you should NOT send an email: 

  1. It requires more than a paragraph – at most two – to bring clarity to a complex topic. 
  2. The email is only going to create additional questions. 
  3. It will surprise the person, or will trigger an emotional reaction. 

You can also use email as your focus for creating healthier boundaries in your life. Tell your coworkers and clients that you prefer phone calls or texts for urgent communication, and if they do decide to email you they shouldn’t expect a reply before the end of the day. Point to the fact that email disrupts deep, meaningful work, and that you’re intentionally working on increasing your critical areas of performance.

And for all things sacred in this universe, get yourself removed from reply all threads.

I’ve seen some clients take the boundaries effort to more of an extreme by creating an autoresponder that notified everyone to call or email them with an urgent issue, but otherwise to expect a reply within 24 hours. Most people receive this idea as harsh or they immediately assume the person received negative feedback when implementing it. However, this was anything but the case. The autoresponder forced their peers to really consider what was worth emailing the person about. Their clients and other people outside their organization expressed appreciation for the clarity and expectations the autoresponder created – “I’ll reply back within 24 hours, if that doesn’t work call or text me.” 

In Closing

You have a relationship with your inbox, so the question becomes are you the dominant one in the pair – or is it your inbox? Do you find yourself constantly checking it at all times of the day, even when you first wake up? Do you have to give each incoming notification your attention? Then you’ve lost control of the relationship.

The purpose of email is to notify, clarify, and update. It’s not intended to solve complex problems, to provide leadership, or to have critical conversations.

Think of your email as a reason to begin creating healthy boundaries in your life. Create specific times and a defined process for checking it. Set expectations with your peers and clients around your email practices. Being utilizing the “Get Up or Pick Up” method to decide when email is appropriate. 

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