What is Email Snacking? ( & How You Can Avoid It)

Photo by s2art

Teachers have plenty of opportunities to recharge their batteries.  Time in the summer, national holidays and did I mention spring break?  It's a genuine gift and very much needed when you're dealing with pesky young people who demand a lot of attention.  Just read last week's Time magazine if you're not convinced. 

As a school administrator, I no longer have the kind of time off that classroom teachers do but I get to catch up on lots of things while the building is empty and folks are on vacation.  My #1 priority from this past week: getting my inbox to zero. 

I came across several blog posts this week which speak to email elimination.  This can sound heretical to folks who are tethered to email all day long, unable to imagine what an empty inbox really looks like.  I interviewed two high level execs to get their take on email.

Paul from CT said,

am never more than a few minutes away from my e-mail.  I’m in my office,
at my computer for most of the day and when I’m away from the office or at
home, I use my Blackberry.  Whenever an e-mail comes in, I look at it and
generally deal with it then.  I don’t “batch” e-mails and quite frankly
I’m not sure this would work well for me.  I think I would feel
overwhelmed and something would slip through the cracks."

Mark from MA said,

"During the day, I need to monitor incoming email
throughout the day while I am at my desk. In our company people use email for
questions and requests that sometimes need quick responses. I do a quick scan
of the email and then if it needs immediate attention, process it right away.  If
it is not urgent I leave it in my inbox and batch it for later in the day. For
personal email I use Gmail and process those emails in the early AM, lunch and
then from home at night. I try to not look at personal email at work because
they can be distracting and take time away from company work. I find I spend
3-4 hours a day on work related email and 1-2 hours a day on personal

For both executives, email is not merely important but essential to their work.  The question is, "does it have to be processed all throughout the day?"

I've found that email is a lot like snacking, a little here, a little there.  If you don't watch it, you'll be heading for the cupboard out of habit instead rather than hunger.  So how do you get your inbox to empty?

  • Merlin Mann of 43 Folders recommends draining the inbox every single time you touch it.  Wow!  I was stunned when I heard of this approach.  Can anyone actually accomplish this?

  • Meanwhile, NY Times Best Seller The Four Hour Workweek (Timothy Ferris) preaches the gospel of email batching, checking email at 11am and 4pm.  He spends just four (read em' four!) minutes a day on email.  I don't think that Mark from Massachusetts would have Ferris over for dinner given those numbers. 

If these folks, successful in their own right, are getting to zero, it must be possible!  Here are some application points:

  1. Email is vital to staying on top of your game.  The real question is "how much?" Reflecting on the role email plays in your work day is a first step.  If you don't think about it, it will become like snacking and continue ad infinitum.  I'm not saying that you need to go away for a weekend retreat, just spend a minute or two in consideration of the role that email plays in your day.

  2. Coach those with whom you work.  If Joe from marketing knows that I'm simply not available all of the time, he will gradually get the picture that you are in control of your day and not the other way around.  He will learn to either wait until you are free or (gasp!) actually seek some old fashioned human contact and walk down the hall to your workspace.  I am convinced that most email we perceive to be urgent is only marginally so.

  3. Experiment for a week.  Some tactics to try might include:
  • Processing email at 11am and 4pm.

  • Letting others know (autoresponder) when you'll be checking email.

  • Turning off all chimes and indicators of inbox inhabitants. 

  • Processing email at three designated times such as 7am, 11am, and 3pm but disciplining yourself to allow only 30 minutes of response time during each check in.

I've found that the less I am checking email, the more focused I can be at the rest of my work.  Each person has a different context and set of expectations so you'll need to figure out an approach that fits the culture of your work place.   If you spend more than 2 hours a day on email, a serious detox may be in order and it will be very, very difficult to coach those around you.  It will feel unnatural to not be checking email all day long. 

One final suggestion, take the time to watch Mann's video presentation at Google.  Then watch Ferris talk about how he handles email.  If they can do it, you can too!