I think we have a problem with email. Actually, I know we have a problem. The question is, how do we take control of email - our day, really - and make the most of the time we have?
Last week I spent 7 hours and 5 minutes on “Communication and Scheduling.” That was 28% of all of my productive time for last week (yeah, it wasn’t a very productive week). As you can probably guess, most of that - 5 hours and 44 minutes - went to email.
By contrast, 5 hours and 31 minutes went to “design and development” applications like Illustrator, Brackets, Premiere Pro, etc. To sum it up, I spent more time in email than I did in all of my design / development apps combined.
The amount of time spent communicating about projects (and not actually working on projects) seems like a problem and I’m certain that it’s not just a problem for me. Most of us have this same sort of relationship with email or “Communication and Scheduling” apps. In fact, a McKinsey Global Institute study found that the average knowledge worker spends 28% of his / her work week either writing, reading or responding to email. 28%. Wow. I guess I was normal last week.
Despite the research, I felt like 28% was high (for me). I know email drives much of what I do but I feel like I’m pretty efficient with it. I needed to dig a little deeper into my own habits.
Digression: Where are you getting these numbers?
Before I go any further, I should probably tell you where I’m getting all of this information about how I spend my day.
I’m using RescueTime to track everything I do on my computer(s). RescueTime is an application that runs in the background, tracking time spent on applications and websites with the goal of helping you understand your daily habits so you can focus and be more productive. I would highly recommend installing at least the Light version, which is free and provides all of the data that I’m referencing. The paid version has some indispensable tools but for the sake of this article, the Light version is sufficient.
What did RescueTime tell me? Sure enough, 28% is pretty high for me.
Here are my email usage stats from the last four years with the number of hours, a percentage of my productive time and the email apps that I used most.
- 2015 - 235 hrs, 20% - Airmail
- 2014 - 192 hrs, 15% - Airmail
- 2013 - 179 hrs, 17% - Airmail, Sparrow, Postbox
- 2012 - 240 hrs, 19% - Mail, Postbox, Sparrow
235 hours doesn’t seem too bad until you consider that that amounts to nearly 6, 40 hour weeks. An entire month and a half of work went to email!
On a side note, it’s interesting to see how I have transitioned from using the standard Apple Mail app to Airmail, my current favorite mail app. You may be worried that because you use Gmail, you won’t get the information that you need. Don’t worry. RescueTime can use the browser URL to figure out that you’re working in Gmail.
Sometimes, you need to see the big picture to find small problems. The chart above shows my email usage throughout the day. One problem I see is that there is a significant amount of email usage between 8 and 10PM. Instead of checking email, I should be winding down for the day to get a proper amount of sleep.
So, is this a problem? And, if it is, what’s the solution?
I have a friend who, through observation and experience working with businesses of all sizes, has determined that there are five key pillars that determine the long-term success of a business. A key tenant is how you, as a business owner or entrepreneur, use your time. If you can’t draw a straight line between what you are doing now (right this second) and either getting new customers or making current customers happy, then you’re wasting your time.
So, back to the question of “Is our relationship with communication and scheduling” a problem? If the time we spend in communication is not helping us achieve our goals (new clients), or our clients goals (making customers happy), then yes, it’s a problem.
It’s hard to identify communication as a problem, especially in light of “making customers happy.” To really figure out whether or not email is a problem, I think we need to look at our own habits and do a little self-evaluation.
Habit - A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition.
Digging in to RescueTime again, I found that a majority of my email usage came at 9AM and slowly tapered down to 2PM until bottoming out at 3PM (which is when I typically leave the office). This probably seems natural. Email sets the course for the day so the first thing you do when you get to work is check email. Is this the most efficient use of what can be your most productive time of the day?
Assuming a proper amount of rest, the first 60-90 minutes of our workday should be the most productive. Why waste it on simple tasks, like email, that don’t require our full resources. Instead, we should plan to tackle the project that is going to provide the most long-term value during this time. We should spend this time striving to make current customers happy.
What’s the solution?
Take Control of Your Schedule
To change any habit, we have to replace it with another habit. When it comes to changing our email habits, I believe we have to consciously schedule our email time for after we’ve made the most of our most productive time period. I know this is difficult but if we block out our first 60-90 minutes to work on a project then we can stop at the end of that period and check our email to get caught up on project updates, requests, etc. This has the added benefit of providing a bit of a reset or rest period when we need it - at the end of a long block of sustained work.
Work in Blocks
My plan is to start blocking, or scheduling my day to take advantage of the most creative / productive periods while building in resets, or rest periods. To have any real success, I think external controls are probably necessary. A simple but effective external control could simply be your calendar. Break your day into time periods and put it on your calendar. If planning a week at a time, be sure to build in time for meetings. This allows you to proactively take control of your schedule. It also gives you an excuse if a time-waster asks to come and meet with you. You can honestly look at your schedule and tell them that you have a 30 minute block of time on Thursday in which you can meet them. This sets expectations and parameters for your meeting and allows you an “out” if it drags on. This is much better than the open-ended meeting that drags on for two hours and kills your entire morning or afternoon. It also makes you accountable to something other than a deadline which is a stressful way to work - deadline to deadline.
My primary goal is to cut email usage by 8%, to less than 20% of my time.
To achieve anything, we need to have goals. What types of goals should we set when it comes to email? My primary goal is to drop it to under 20% of my time. This will probably be challenging, but by blocking my day, I should be able to turn off email and focus on higher level tasks.
Using RescueTime and a little bit of will-power, I should be able to accomplish this! Or, at least reevaluate my goal.
- FocusTime Recipe for IFTTT.com - This recipe starts a FocusTime session every morning at 9AM. Set your session for a time that makes sense to you. If you’re not using IFTTT.com, or if you’ve never heard of it, you should check it out. I’m sure you can find something that can make you more productive.
- What is is IFTTT.com? Simply put, IFTTT stands for “If This Then That.” IFTTT.com allows you to create “If / Then” recipes that run when particular conditions are met. The recipe above is essentially, If “it is 9AM” then “start a FocusTime session.”
- What is FocusTime? FocusTime gives you an amazing superpower - the ability to create perfect conditions for sustained focus. Quiet the distractions that swirl around you, and lock into a state of energized attention that will let you get things done faster and more enjoyably. Blocking distracting websites is just the beginning. Through integrations with other apps, you can completely tailor your environment to support your focus.