The mail never stops
A masterclass in controlling the information tsunami
Some days, I sit down at my desk with the best intentions of using a nice clear stretch of time to get one of the Big tasks™ done. Ah, plenty of time, I’ll say to myself. Look at all that time. Maybe I’ll just spend the first 5 minutes just checking there are no urgent emails, then I can get on with my Big Task™.
Before you know it, you’re 25 emails in, and now the first ones you started replying to are coming back in with responses from ultra diligent colleagues. It’s been an hour. In that time Slack and maybe even MS Teams has started to ping too. That window of time is looking smaller and less useful, and I start to hear the strangely profound words of mailman Newman from Seinfeld echo in my brain…
Because the mail never stops. It just keeps coming and coming and coming. There’s never a letup, it’s relentless. Every day it piles up more and more, and you gotta get it out, but the more you get out, the more keeps coming in! And then the bar code reader breaks! And then it’s Publisher’s Clearinghouse Day…!
Please do watch the clip with Newman in all his hilarious, magnificent glory:
As emails kept dropping into my inbox, and slacks were pinging I sat and thought about what the most sensible option is to deal with influxes like this, and leave time to actually do work too. Ignore them all till the next day? Doesn’t seem very professional. Designate certain hours solely to email? My schedule isn’t that uniform each day so it’s hard to get a consistent window.
After experiencing this on a regular basis, I’ve finally hit upon a process for dealing with the information tsunami so I don’t feel overwhelmed and like I suck at my job. I hope this helps you too.
Controlling the flow: Email and Slack
A lot of the issue with emails is that if you get a lot, like you saw above you can just get stuck in a loop of answering emails, then answering the responses, ad infinitum. So what I realised is: it’s all to do with controlling the flow. Many email applications let you schedule emails, and this is my first golden nugget for you.
- Respond to each email as you would normally respond
- Before sending, choose the “send later” option.
- Choose a time when you are planning to take a break from the deep work you’re planning to do. Sometimes if I’m doing this near the end of the day, I will schedule them to send at 5:30 so I can leave with a relatively clean inbox and without feeling like lots of important things have just flooded back in. Alternatively I schedule them for 10am the next day so the predictable influx of responses come in after I’ve got set up for the day.
Obviously anything super urgent gets sent immediately, but for everything else I make sure everything goes out at the same time, and will come in at a predictable time and rate.
Exactly the same tactic can be taken with Slack. It has a send later option on the green send button:
This approach makes it easier for you to control your time and the flow of requests coming in, and reduce the number of interruptions while you’re concentrating on a piece of work.
Control your calendar
I’ve found time blocking to be a great idea for making sure every last slot isn’t allocated to other peoples work rather than your own, but let’s take this to the next level to really make sure you are in control of your time.
- Time blocks: Schedule re-occuring blocks of deep work in your calendar — so far, so normal! I noticed many people now have “focus time” scheduled on certain days, but they can be supercharged by combining then with the following timeblocking tactics:
- Re-occuring buffers: Around re-occuring meetings like 1 to 1’s, team meetings, etc, schedule a re-occuring accompanying “buffer” 10 minutes either side. This allows you time to have a break, or take time to mentally task switch if you have a busy day. The genius of this idea is that it is the gap that is also re-occuring. This used to be an “ad-hoc” gap I’d put in on heavier days, but now I am starting to make the gaps also re-occur it’s reduced the amount of last-minute calendar massaging I’m doing.
- Themed blocks: Schedule blocks of time that are public with “Low intensity meeting time” to control the type of work that is getting put in each day. Been in workshops and long meetings all morning? Schedule these low intensity blocks for the afternoon to signal you're happy to chat, but no more workshops or things that are energy intense.
- Contiguous blocks: Shifting lots of smaller meetings to be one after the other to stop the amount of context switching and bits of time in between that nothing sizable can get done in.
- Overlapping: Sometimes it’s only necessary to be at a portion of a meeting — this means you can start to overlap your committments to make larger free blocks of time at other times of the day/week. Always check with the organiser if they are happy for you to attend a reduced portion of the time.
- Private blocks: For when you really want to protect some time, I find marking something as private is less likely to get booked over with other meetings. Perhaps because someone viewing your calendar may automatically think it’s a personal event, and no matter what they do you will not be around to attend whatever they attempt to invite you too. Now this one really is Machiavellian and will depend on what the culture at your organisation is like. For some this will be a shady step too far at being purposefully obtuse, but on the busiest weeks it can be a real lifeline. Use with caution!
See the whole iceberg of work
Every time I put a meeting in with people, I realised there is more to just the meeting itself — mainly because no one just add’s a meeting for the fun of it, they will always generate work.
A meeting is actually made of three parts: I call this the pre-meeting, the meeting itself, and the post meeting actions. Each of these needs it’s own time allocated so you’re not creating work now that you have no time to do in the future.
Get in the habit of scheduling in these three blocks every time. Future you will thank past you for this absolute solid you’re doing them. Never enter a meeting feeling unprepared and flustered, and never leave a meeting feeling panicked about where you will find the time to work on what has been given to you.
One of my favourite things to do is to use the Outlook “out of office” feature to signal when I am heavily loaded so people know when to expect a reply. If it’s a busy week, I will switch my out of office on with a message that is a little like this:
“Hi, although I’m working this week I’m experiencing a high volume of emails and messages. I have time scheduled on [insert day] to go through all of these messages, if you require an urgent response please call me instead”
I also take a similar approach on Slack with a short message and warning that I have a large backlog and I have received their message.
Setting this expectation really helps people to know you are hearing them, but are a little overwhelmed and will respond when you can. If anything, I feel a little better that people don’t feel completely ignored. And I think sometimes it makes people be more empathetic about deciding whether today is the day they can offload 15 things they have been saving up for you.
The monthly planner
What ties all these approaches together is a re-occuring reminder I schedule at the end of each month to look forward at the next four weeks. I have a regular note with the below checklist that I go through for each week in the coming month.
I check for the following things:
- Have I blocked time out regularly for deep work? Does it clash with anything? (There is always someone who will just book over it!)
- Have I booked in pre-meetings and post-meetings to accompany any meetings likely to need prep or time to action things? (That’s all of them)
- Have I made sure regular meetings have re-occuring gaps around them?
- Is anyone on holiday for any meetings I have with them, and can I sneakily leave them in to hold that time in my calendar? (Yes, I am that fiercely protective of my time!)
- Moving blocks around and overlapping blocks/meetings where possible.
- Removing anything not needed anymore, or what can be replaced with a quick call? Reduce where possible.
- What weeks look too full? Can anything of lower urgency move to a following week? Now is the time to realise that and move it in advance, without upsetting anyone at the last minute.
The above took a while for me to get into a regular routine with, but after a while it became second nature to be protective and proactive with my time.
What you’ll probably find after doing the above is that you’re left with a very scary and true representation of what time is needed to do everything, including some small gaps to task switch, and time to do the work around meetings and commitments.
So to recap:
- Use scheduling to control the flow of information
- Supercharge timeblocking with overlapping, theming, buffering and privatising are good tactics to controlling your calendar
- Set expectations and be transparent about your schedule with others
- See meetings as a three part act, schedule each one with it’s own time slot
- Commit to a monthly time management triage
No one likes to be stressed about their time at work, and feeling like you are on some sort of wild treadmill that you can’t stop. Like Newman says “The mail never stops”, and it really doesn’t. But…
“When You Control The Mail, You Control… Information.” — Newman
With a little planning and perseverance you can control that information tsunami. I’d be interested to know if there are any other techniques for time management I’ve missed — please do share them in the comments if you have something different that has worked for you.