Are you one of the 70% overwhelmed by the state of your inbox?

I recently posted a series on the 7 Impacts of Email Overload on Psychological Health in the Workplace and the first of these is the stress that comes from email overload and overwhelm.
As David Allen, leading American productivity consultant and famous for his Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology says, most of the stress we experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments that we make or accept – to ourselves as well as to others. He says we will -

“invariably experience greater relaxation, better focus and increased productive 
energy when we learn to effectively control these ‘open loops’ of our lives”.

One of the greatest sources of ‘open loops’ in our work life are all the emails sitting in the inbox. How many times do you find yourself re-reading and re-analysing an email before you finally take some sort of action?
You see, whenever you read an email, however briefly, it opens up a mental file and is being tracked by the less-than-conscious part of your mind. And with dozens or even hundreds of these sub-conscious ‘open loops’, it uses up a lot of RAM (random access memory), making it harder to focus and think clearly.
As Allen says, the reason your mind won’t let these things go is because;

  • you haven’t clarified the intended outcome

  • you haven’t identified the specific ‘next action’

  • you haven’t captured the outcome or next action in a system you trust

I would add to these, that you haven’t identified when you will come back to the email.
Even if you've clarified the next action, your mind won't let go until, and unless, you capture it in a place it knows you will, without fail, check at the appropriate time. It will keep nagging and pressuring you about that piece of unfinished business (usually when you can't do anything about it), which just adds to your stress.
Gretchen Rubin has wonderfully articulated this in her book ‘The Happiness Project’ –

“when unfinished tasks are put off for a long time, they end up haunting us, 
making us feel unsatisfied and robbing us of our energy.”

Thinking in a concentrated way to define next actions and desired outcomes is something few of us have time for, especially when looking at a busy inbox. That’s why I spend so much time in my workshops, coaching and conference presentations talking about the importance of when you should look at the inbox.
Your mind simply will not do the thinking that’s needed to process an email unless you set aside a specific block of time to fully focus on this task. Allowing email as an interruption or checking it at random times or on an ‘ad hoc’ basis is so terribly ineffective. You read and re-read the same email multiple times. But I believe that:

“your time is too valuable to ever read the same email more than once.”

As David Allen has written, the timeless solution for managing your ‘stuff’, regardless of whatever new technology is available is having:

  • a process for capturing the things that need your attention

  • the mental rigour to clarify and decide what the things mean to you

  • a trusted system for organising the resulting to-do items

  • the personal discipline to take action

And this is so very relevant to way you handle email each day. The new 2 step 4D process I recommend and teach in my Revolutionise Your Inbox workshops teaches you to handle each email only once. It is based on the ‘lean’ approach used by Michael Hoffman at Leanmail (an Outlook app that I highly recommend), that minimises double-handling and wasted effort.

Here’s how it applies to the points David Allen makes above;

  • It’s a process for capturing the things that need your attention . . .

The first step is to Triage the inbox by choosing an appropriate level of priority (low, normal, high) and identifying the next action required for that email. This next action can be typed directly into a Next Action column in your inbox so you don’t have to re-read and re-analyse the email. This saves enormous amounts of time and mental energy – cutting through the overload and overwhelm.

FYI - It’s not actually the volume of emails we receive that causes overload – it’s the reading the same email 3, 5, 8 or more times before taking action that overwhelms us.

  • The mental rigour to clarify and decide what the things mean to you . . .

This can be made easier by scheduling specific times into your calendar to address email, allowing your mind time and space for the deeper level thinking required. Email is a legitimate and important aspect of your work that you must keep up with, yet almost nobody blocks out time in their schedule to attend to it.
You schedule time for meetings, phone appointments, teleconferences and webinars etc. Each of these can be defined as ‘a conversation with one or more other people’. They are important. You block time in your calendar for them. As a result, you tend to keep up with them.
So why not email? Isn’t it also ‘a conversation’?
Meetings etc are a verbal conversation (with or without a visual component as well), whereas email is a digital or written conversation. More and more of our conversations have shifted from verbal channels to written ones such as email, text, Linked In, Facebook etc. However, it takes more mental effort and focus to be effective with written conversations than with verbal ones. Yet we don’t give dedicated time and attention to email and then wonder why we struggle to keep up all our email – doh!
By blocking specific times in the calendar, we can transform email from a reactive, unplanned and distracted conversation into one we give our full attention, at a dedicated time . . .  allowing us to handle email both quicker and more effectively.

  • A trusted system for organising the resulting to-do items . . .

By adding a ‘Due Date’ or ‘When’ column to the inbox, and setting up a default view that groups by these dates, it brings the appropriate email back to your attention at the appropriate time - only when you need to action it, and not before. This way your view of the inbox is not cluttered by seeing all of your email – you only see what you need, when you need to see it, and in order of priority.

The personal discipline to take action . . .

This process of identifying the priority, next action and due date for each email minimises the amount of effort, willpower and self-discipline needed to keep up with everything. It makes it so much easier to follow this new process with minimal double-handling and wasted effort.

The proof of this can be seen in the feedback I’ve received from recent participants who have learnt this new process in some of my recent Revolutionise Your Inbox workshops.

I’m replying all so everyone can share in my excitement!!!! Didn’t check my emails anywhere near as often today and when I did, I added my next action, added my date and like magic the email disappeared until the date I’m ready to deal with – OMG I’m so excited!!!! I wasn’t distracted by notifications all day and I even moved things into my calendar. I’ve definitely still got a way to go but even after just one day I’m already feeling less overwhelmed – yay!!! Thank you soooooooo much. 
Amanda Bultitude | Executive Assistant to the CEO | McDonalds Corporation
First time ever, I am walking out the door with all emails attended to, and my actions cleared! I managed to get away with only checking my emails twice today – probably not realistic long term, but vast improvement of the 15+ times a day I used to – felt much more in control.
Nikki Gilbertson | Operations Manager | genU Karingal St Laurence
Can I just say that you have completely changed my life at work after attending your training on Tuesday. Even less than 2 days after and living in my Calendar and not in my in-box I am less stressed and feel more in control than I have since starting here 4 and half years ago. To not worry about having to remember everything is beyond fantastic. Can’t say thank you enough!!
Jenny Juschkat | Manager Dental Services | Latrobe Community Health
I am now on day 3 and I have to say I can’t believe the incredible difference my learnings are making and the approach to my day. In particular the ‘triage’ system has allowed me to plan my day accordingly and I feel much!!  more organised.  Also, even a small thing of turning off the email alerts other than those I need to see immediately has made a huge difference. Steuart thank you so much!
Deborah Wyborn | National McCopCo Coordinator

Everyone (even two staff who are hard to please) have advised that the training was the ‘best training they have done’ in years.  Luke Doherty | Manager | Shared & Respite Living | genU Karingal St Laurence

What each of these diligent, hard-working people have learnt is a new ‘cutting edge’ process for managing their inbox that works in today’s fast-paced and hectic business environment. Most of us are using pretty much the same skillset today that as when we first starting using email 20 years ago. But in that time, the volumes, demands, workload and urgency of email has increased exponentially.
If you’re interested to learn how to get control of your email, revolutionise the inbox, reduce your stress and be more productive in the workplace, I’d welcome the opportunity to show you how to do this – for yourself, for your team or for your next conference.

Get in touch via email, or better still give us a call.

Steuart Snooks