Email, improperly managed, is a productivity and focus killer. A commonly mentioned solution is “batch processing”: checking email only in discrete chunks during the day, rather than continuously. But what about those of us with clients who expect high levels of responsiveness? Does batch processing work for us as well?
I’ve found, in my consulting business, that the answer is yes — an overwhelming yes — with a few special considerations, which I’ll get into below.
Batch processing has actually improved my level of client service. Freelance work requires you to be extremely buttoned-up and organized; a messy inbox is as surefire a path to disorganization as you’ll find anywhere. Getting rigorous about email — having a system — has been, by far, one of the most impactful changes I made in my consulting business. And any time I stray from the system, it invariably bites me in the ass.
Below, I’ll outline the batch processing system that I use, and how I take steps to ensure my clients still feel taken care of despite not hearing from me within 10 minutes of emailing me.
The core practice is to “batch process” – check email only a few times per day.
On a standard day (no fast-moving emergency situations) I check emails around 10:00am, 1:00pm and 5:00pm. I schedule these on my calendar like any other appointment.
As a chronic “quick-replier” this was insanely difficult to adapt to, but a complete game-changer once I saw how much higher my email quality was. Despite going out less frequently, my emails are more coherent, actionable and directed. Why? I’m sending them in a well-ordered manner, not dashing shit off on my iPhone as I’m getting into a cab. And I no longer miss emails; there’s no “I saw it but I’ll get to it later” mental notes that are forgotten in 7 minutes.
Outside of the “batch” time, I don’t see email. Out of sight, out of mind.
I’ve disabled all notifications and popups, and quit out of my inbox when I’m not in email mode. Working with the inbox open is like dieting with a box of Thin Mints in the house; even if you can avoid tearing the package open and consuming the sugary goodness inside, it takes a lot of brainpower to do so. Better off just hiding that stuff outright.
The amount of mental space and focus freed up by corralling email into structured processing periods, as opposed to letting it have its way with you via notifications and compulsive inbox refreshes, is simply astounding. I genuinely wonder how compulsive inbox checkers get any work done at all.
I’m upfront with clients about email frequency and give them alternatives to reach me.
Clients are surprisingly cool with this, especially once they experience how much better my email management is with this system. I just explain that:
– I get tons of emails, and they should always expect a few hour’s lag in a reply.
– I WILL see, process and reply to the email as needed.
– I am super reachable by phone & text for anything urgent.
Surprising benefit. When you set the expectation that you take a few hours to reply to emails, it buys you more time to respond to delicate/sensitive emails. If you’re normally a reply-in-15-minutes guy and all of a sudden nobody hears from you for a day, it may raise flags.
When processing emails, I do it a rigorous and consistent way.
Now that I’ve committed to the batch processing method, what do I actually do? At the scheduled time I open my inbox. At the same time, I open my calendar and my task list. If I can help it, I never check emails without the calendar and task list open in front of me — far too much risk of things slipping through the cracks otherwise.
During this “email mode,” I treat it like any other project. I throw on headphones and avoid distractions.
– Delete/Archive — if it’s not something I need to act on now or at any point in the future, it gets archived immediately.
– Quick reply/action — if I can quickly reply or take action (under five minutes), I do so and then archive the email.
– Scheduled action — if a more involved action is required, or a lengthy reply, I’ll schedule that onto my calendar or create a Todo and then archive the email. (Note — this is a key differentiator from letting the email serve as a de facto task list. I find that I’ll let emails build up until I forget why they’re sitting there (“was I supposed to get back to that guy…?”). Much better just to pop them onto the calendar and be done with it.)
– Snooze — rarely I’ll snooze the email to temporarily hide it for a week or so. This is when an email may or may not require action, but it’s too early to tell.
Do unto others…
I make no pretense of being highly responsive on email, so I don’t expect the same of others. I avoid peppering people with email and I don’t dash off emails from my phone at 7:30pm on a Friday.
– Obviously, there are days when I have my inbox open and I’m rapidly firing off emails. Sometimes there’s time sensitive stuff or a fire-drill that is going down on a bunch of email threads. My system isn’t dogma.
– I’ll break the “don’t look at email outside of certain periods” rule on slow days, or if I wind up with 15 extra minutes randomly.
– If you can’t get away with 2-3 times per day, you can do it more frequently – as much as once per hour – but you should still try and keep to the “email mode” / “non email mode” dichotomy.
– This system applies for Slack messages too, as well as any other messaging medium you might use. Just make sure your checking frequencies are in line with expectation. Slack might have the expectation of more availability.
Originally appears on hackthegrind.net