Welcome everybody. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn to understand so that we can make a higher contribution. This is part two of a four-part series on how to apply effortless thinking to the world of work. Have you ever felt that email was harder than it needs to be? By the end of this episode, you will have practical suggestions you can immediately apply to take one of the most frustrating and exhausting elements of modern work life and make it easier. Let’s get to it.
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Let’s start with a super efficient email process, care of Peter Bregman on Harvard Business Review. Here’s my problem with email. A lawyer friend of his told him recently I open Outlook expecting to quickly check my email, but then I read an email with a link in it. I follow the link, and then I’m lost in the internet for hours. My job is to be on email. Jane continued. How can I avoid getting hooked?
Bregman suggests that a better way to deal with email is to bulk process it at scheduled times during the day rather than to just check email incessantly, like sometimes more than once a minute if we’re feeling particularly frenetic.
At First, Jane, like most lawyers and most people in professional settings, felt that she had to be on email all the time, but after thinking about it, she admitted that no one would notice if she wasn’t. So taking an hour-long email break through the day would be a good way to start freeing herself up to do other more meaningful, more essential work. Nevertheless, Jane still needed a way to get through her email efficiently when it was time.
Bregman points out that the first time you follow this process can be a long process because you’ve got a lot of backlog to clear up. I don’t know how many emails are in your inbox, but I know personally of people who have 10,000 emails. They never have gone through to declutter it, so their inboxes become almost metaphorical for how out of control life can feel at times. Still, after you work through that backlog, if you schedule 30 minutes at key moments throughout the day, you can normally get through all of the emails that come your way and not feel so endlessly addicted to the repeated checking and checking and checking.
Here’s the process. He suggests one send, he starts a timer and begins by writing emails, so he actually starts with a 30-minute timer. He’s really keeping himself to that limit, so he starts his timer, and he begins by writing emails he had planned to send, so this often includes follow-ups to meetings, thank you notes, questions, scheduling, and other requests. He does this so that if someone gets back to him immediately, he still has time to respond while in his 30-minute email period.
Number two, he quickly glances through the subject and from lines on the emails in his inbox and immediately deletes the ones he knows are a waste of time to read, including any marketing emails and impersonal blasts that he hasn’t requested. This step just takes a few seconds and drastically reduces his email bulk. I’ll add that something I do in these bursts is to unsubscribe from any emails that I haven’t subscribed for or, of course, are no longer interesting to me.
Three respond. He does his best to answer every single email that comes directly to him, even if it means just writing. Thank you. So since picking through emails to choose which to answer first wastes time, he starts with the most recent and works his way down. At this point, he doesn’t click on any links in the emails because he doesn’t want to read any lengthy articles. He saves that for step five.
Below step four, he files. Once he opens an email, he doesn’t leave it in his inbox. He finds that when he does leave emails in his inbox, he ends up rereading them repeatedly. Each time he opens up his email and each time he’d waste more time trying to decide how to handle it, so he either deletes it or moves it to another folder. He’s set up waiting, read someday, travel client specific. Every time he goes to his email, his goal is to empty his inbox.
Now I will say, as an aside inbox, empty is itself a sort of game that we have to be careful about. Who says that? That means you’ve achieved your life’s work. What does it really mean to have nothing in your inbox? But nevertheless, there is at least an unquestionably nice feeling about actually getting to zero.
Number five, he says, read and follow up in whatever time he has left before his timer goes off, he’ll go through his non-inbox folders, reading through newsletters, clicking on links, and following up on emails in his waiting file.
And then, finally, his end is when his countdown timer sounds. He closes up his email program. Once he’s done, he does not return to his email on any device until his next scheduled session.
He has a couple of other helpful suggestions. One is that when he goes through this process, he tries not to give anyone negative feedback via email, right, and that makes sense, even though most of us have made the mistake. Email’s a great tool for transactional conversations, sharing information, where should we be for lunch? Here’s that file. You know, showing some appreciation too can be effective, I think, in email, but for anything else, you’re better off calling trying to talk to someone face-to-face because so much of the negative energy in a negative email is amplified when it’s shared that way.
One more helpful suggestion is to set up rules. Most email programs have rules that allow you to be able to automatically send emails that fit certain criteria directly to other folders. So, for example, you can have a folder where all out-of-office replies get sent immediately to. That way you don’t have to spend any time at all processing and out of office bounce back.
Now, and I think this is the most important rule in his super efficient email process, is to stick within the timer and keep within the 30-minute timeframe because without using the timer, it’s just way too easy to just keep going and going. Now, what’s wrong with that? What’s the problem with being in email endlessly among the primary challenges is that the most important things in our lives, the essential things, often do not show up in our email inbox at all, and so there we are, charging through, cutting through slaying all of these emails after email, after email producing much more email as we go, because statistically, we know that for every email we send, we get X percent back. So often, the more we send, the more we’ll get, and we’re in an endless loop of email inflation, but if the most essential things aren’t in the inbox there, you can see the problem is that we will get better and better at doing what should not be done at all.
My primary concern about email is that it should not become the dominant force of our professional or personal lives. We should not outsource the executive function of our brains to our inbox, and yet that’s just exactly what happens when the first thing we do in the morning is check email, and the last thing at night is check email. That’s what happens when the next thing we do after any other activity is to check email. We explored this recently, and I’d encourage you to go back and listen to it with Dr. Gloria Mark, both part one and part two. That’s episodes 171 and 173 of this podcast. You can go way back and re-listen to the number 11 episode of this podcast. That’s with my friend Cal Newport, the computer science professor who perhaps is most known for not owning a single social media account of any kind and wrote a whole book, A Visionary Treaties on a World Without Email, what that might look like.
And so, while I want to share with you this super efficient process for dealing with email, I also simultaneously want to encourage you to design a life as free from email as is possible. For example, if you own your own business and you have a contacts page which allows people to email into that business, you might consider having some other alternative.
I know of someone, I haven’t done it yet myself, but I’m considering it, who has no email function on their website, but instead, for the things that they see as important, they allow people to fill out a specific form and that immediately filters out many of the different requests that to him are not valuable and essential.
I would encourage you to use a 10-minute microburst, a strategy that I outlined in Effortless, also with a timer to unsubscribe from every single email that is not today currently essential to you. Because although you can eliminate emails quickly by deleting them every day, if you add up the mental fatigue from those additional every day, time-wasting habits, plus all the switching costs that come from every interruption, you can see that something that seems non-trivial can add up to something meaningful. Eliminate them completely.
I know of one executive who has made it clear to the people that he works directly with. If you send me an email longer than two sentences long, I simply won’t read it, which you might say, well, that’s all right for her, but I think she’s just being honest about what people currently do with email. If the email is too long, what happens is people do a pre-scan, well, am I ever going to read that whole email? No, I’m not. Can I get some gist of it? Of course, you can use chatGPT in just that situation. Take the whole way too long email, put it into chatGPT, and ask for a summary. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but I think it’s actually better than what’s currently being done, which is we just don’t read them at all. Maybe people pretend to, but when you get as much email as the current workplace produces, it’s just not doable. I ask all audiences of people who gets more than 50 emails a day, more than a hundred, more than 150, more than 200, and so on, and there’s always people who are getting 200, 250, perhaps 300 emails every day. Nobody is reading 300 emails. Exactly nobody. It’s just cluttering up the process, making it harder to even discern, replacing thinking with busyness, the sense that we have a lot to do because a lot’s coming our way when really the most important thing of the day, the mission of the day may just be completely ignored altogether.
Let me read you something from page 23 of Effortless to put all of this into context.
“You are like a supercomputer designed with extremely powerful capabilities. You’re built to be able to learn quickly, solve problems intuitively and compute the right next action effortlessly under optimal conditions. Your brain works at incredible speeds, but just like a supercomputer, your brain does not always perform optimally. Think about how a computer slows down when it’s hard, drive gets cluttered with files and browsing data. The machine still has incredible computing power, but it’s less available to perform essential functions. Similarly, when your brain is filled with clutter like outdated assumptions, negative emotions, toxic thought patterns,” and of course, I should add here, too much email, “you have less mental energy available to perform what’s most essential. A concept in cognitive psychology known as Perceptual Load theory explains why this is the case.”
“Our brain’s processing capacity is large but limited. It already processes over 600,000 thoughts a day, so when we encounter new information, our brains have to make a choice about how to allocate the remaining cognitive resources and cause Our brains are programmed to prioritize emotions with high effective value like fear, resentment, or anger. These strong emotions will generally win out, leaving us with even fewer mental resources to devote to making progress on the things that matter.”
“When your computer is running slowly, all you have to do is hit a few buttons to clear all the browsing data, and immediately, the machine works better, smoother, faster. In a similar way, you can learn simple tactics to rid yourself of all the clutters, slowing down the hard drive of your mind. By hitting a few buttons, you can be restored to your original effortless state.”
“So perhaps you have experienced what it feels like to return to the effortless estate. Imagine it’s the end of a long day, you have a headache that you can’t seem to shake, you can’t remember where you’ve put your phone or your keys, even the smallest, most reasonable requests. A client asks for a piece of information via a confusing voicemail or your child wants to be picked up from piano lessons fill you with resentment. A piece of constructive feedback from your boss spins you out. You’re convinced you’re a failure, you’re irritable with your spouse, and can’t find the right words to express how overwhelmed you feel. Why does everything feel so hard? You wonder, but then after a warm meal, a hot shower, and a good night’s sleep, things look completely different. You wake up clearheaded grateful for another day. You find your phone and your keys right where you left them. You immediately know how to respond to the voicemail, not so confusing after all, and you do so with grace. You want nothing more than to sit quietly in the car with your child for a few minutes. On the way back from piano lessons, you find the right words to say to your spouse, I’m sorry about that. Please forgive me. You thank your boss for the feedback and mean it. Your inherent capabilities are restored.”
“When you return to your effortless state, you feel lighter in two senses of the word. First, you feel less heavy and unburdened. You aren’t as weighed down. Suddenly you have more energy, but lighter also means more full of light. When you remove the burdens in your heart and the distractions in your mind, and the emails in your inbox, you are able to see more clearly. You can discern the right action and light the right path. The effortless state is one in which you are physically rested, emotionally unburdened, and mentally energized.”
“You are completely present, attentive, and focused on what’s important in that moment. You are able to do what matters most with ease, and that effortless state doesn’t end there. It is the beginning of a positive, upward, virtuous cycle. It leads to more effortless action and to creating more effortless results. Results that flow to you.”
All of this can be squandered if we start to live a life where email is in charge. I’ve said before that to me, it would be a regret to live a life in such a way that the line on my tombstone reads, he checked email. What we want is to put that tool in its proper place, put it within this 30-minute cycle, and use this super efficient process to make email more effortless to handle so that we can restore more of the effortless state that has so many benefits in being able to actually design and execute a life that really matters.
Thank you. Really, thank you for listening to this episode, number two, in a series of four episodes about how to apply effortless thinking to key challenges and frustrations in the world of work. If you’re finding that work is more frustrating to you than normal, if you find that the people at work seem to be on the edge of exhaustion, even your best, most engaged people, then Effortless, the book itself may make sense to read as a group, to be able to get the whole department, the whole organization, to be able to think in this way so that you can declutter all of the noise and focus our energy on those things that have not just a high return on investment, but a high return on effort, not just ROI, but ROE.
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Thank you, and I’ll see you next time.