Living with (Email) Uncertainty

I can be very bad with email, but perhaps not in the way that you might think. Some people carry a massive “email debt” — tens of thousands of emails piled up in their accounts that they know they’ll never read. I, on the other hand, check my email very frequently. If I see over 20 unread emails in my inbox, my heart skips a beat.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the idea: I’m a compulsive email-checker. While keeping on top of your emails is generally a good thing, trying to read (and respond) to everything as it comes your way can be a real drain on your time. After trading in my “@stanford.edu” for “@zs.com” over these past few months, I’m increasingly aware how clicking on all those emails isn’t going to cut it at a certain point. Instead, I want to see how I do with more email uncertainty; I’m committing to checking my email less frequently, and with more purpose.

The first step is to check email less frequently.

I have Outlook on my phone for my work email, and it’s already come in handy enough times that I’m reluctant to relinquish it. After some consideration, I actually think keeping the app is a good test of committing to this “email uncertainty” — unless I know something major is going on that I’ll have to react to very quickly, refreshing the inbox right now versus a few hours later isn’t going to matter that much. Instead, I will shift moments of compulsive email-checking towards the tasks, meetings, and life in general at the moment.

The second step is to deal with email more efficiently.

Part of this efficiency comes from less-frequent checking; when I do check my email, I set that as the main focus. This includes reading through emails, jotting down notes for next steps, and preparing responses as needed. This time period allows me to get into an “email” mood, where I can clear out unread messages and respond to others in one chunk of time instead of piece by piece.

Key to this efficient email checking includes sorting priorities from that “chunk” of emails. With frequent checks, each new email becomes another piece of information sitting at the front of your mind, disrupting your current workflows and real-world engagements. By reducing the frequency of email checks (per step 1), it becomes easier to make better decisions about what’s most important to focus on next. At work, for example, this can help you accomplish and send out two priorities from emails, instead of leaving four things half-done in the same amount of time.

Email, like many forms of modern technology, is tempting. In order to make sure email is something that improves, not increases, our ability to communicate well, we should check our emails less to get more out of them. We should commit to living with more email uncertainty.

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