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Tyranny of the inbox

Tyranny of the inbox

By Judith Bennett

Practice Management Workplace 


Taking control of email checking can make you more productive at work. When used well email is an effective tool for work communication. However, lawyers can feel overwhelmed by the volume of emails received, while believing they must constantly check and respond, or risk the frustration of bosses, colleagues and clients. Yet checking email too frequently can be a problem. This is despite a Loughborough University study showing that people speedily handle 70 per cent of work emails within six seconds. Why is it a problem? According to the experts, checking your email too frequently is a key factor in reducing your productivity at work. Email checking is built to be addictive to human brains so is easy to do. Yet every time you check your email you need at least 15 minutes to focus on a new task or get back to your previous task. This adds up. Email checking is also a major cause of workplace stress. A University of British Columbia study found when people were limited to checking their email only three times per day, their stress levels decreased significantly, and they felt a greater sense of accomplishment at work. How often is normal? How often does an average person check their work email? One survey found 40 per cent checked their email between six and 20 times per day. Another study by Fast Company found an average worker checked their email 74 times a day. And the amount of email is increasing by 15 per cent per year says Forbes magazine. The Radicati Group estimated that more than 281 billion business and consumer emails were sent and received each day in 2018, with the average office worker receiving 90 and sending 40 business emails a day. How often is right? Experts have suggested a range of strategies for checking email. Organisational expert Julie Morgenstern’s book Never Check Email in the Morning argues this only creates a false sense of accomplishment. Productivity expert Sid Savara agrees. “When it comes to email, ignorance is bliss if you’ve got something important you want to make progress on. I have these four words: Don’t check your email. As soon as you get up, work on something important for 30-45 minutes, and only then check it. If you can stand it, wait even longer. Any new information you get can cause you to get distracted.” More bluntly, when you check your inbox, the emails you get are a to do list someone else makes for you. Who is in charge of your time – you, or the person emailing you? Meanwhile business expert Rod Kurtz of Business Week says check your work email a maximum of five times per day. Check your inbox first thing in the morning, mid-morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon, and end of day. Or even less if you are able. Turn off the automatic send/receive function, allowing you up to two hours to focus on your work, rather than be continually interrupted. Design it for you In summary, the experts agree: Only check email at times you choose during the day. It may help you to start by aiming for under five times a day. (Let people know you will respond at those times.) This may be more difficult if you are at the bottom of the food chain at your firm, and easier for more senior roles or self-employed. However the benefits are real for all workers who manage checking emails effectively, with significantly boosted productivity and reduced work stress. Tips Manage your email checking. Check emails only at times you choose during the day. Boost your productivity and reduce your work stress. Judith Bennett is a lawyer and business adviser for the legal profession at www.Business4Group.com.

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