Five Habits for Overcoming Message Overload

These five powerful habits can help you increase personal effectiveness and take control of technology.

By Marsha Egan, President and CEO, The Egan Group, Inc.,

Cloud-based application providers are attempting to combat today's technological overload by implementing programs designed for efficiency; such as Google's Priority Inbox for Gmail. While these programs attempt to prioritize e-mail messages by hypothesizing which are most important and sort through them automatically, they overlook the root of the problem: the habit of compulsive e-mailing. Productive workers do not work the way they do simply because they bought a software program. They are efficient because they choose to be. They choose not to be distracted every time a new e-mail message arrives. Instead, they enforce daily habits that make the best use of technology in the age of message overload.

Be warned -- breaking an inbox e-ddiction is not easy. You may disagree with the practices associated with an "Inbox Detox" or find it unsettling to put the Blackberry aside during a lunch break. You may be skeptical of the supposed benefits a few simple changes can make. However, all users want to increase their productivity so they can get through the "really important" tasks.

Good inbox management habits can increase personal efficiency and reduce stress. Workers who are productive on the job feel less obligated to work outside normal hours and less overwhelmed by the overload. In addition, employees feel empowered when they take control. The difference is amazing once people realize that they don't need to react every time their inbox tempts them to.

Taking control means not pausing in the middle of a client discussion to check a buzzing smartphone. Taking control means resisting the urge to check an e-mail the moment it registers in your inbox. Taking control means deciding when, how, and where to deal with your e-mail messages.

Here are five powerful habits to increase personal effectiveness and take control of technology.

Habit #1: Check your inbox five times daily -- or even less.

Spreading out the intervals with which you view your inbox will provide the gift of uninterrupted time. Time to actually get things done. Time to focus and make progress without having to backtrack and recreate your thought process after every e-mail interruption.

Worried about your client relations and limiting your e-mail usage to a handful of times a day? Let's assume the most time between inbox views is approximately 90 minutes. We've all sat through meetings that have surpassed 90 minutes and the sky didn't fall in, did it?

Habit #2: Turn off unnecessary notifications.

Interruptions are productivity killers. E-mail dings and flashes have turned into the most prolific source of interruptions seen by man. Considering it takes the average adult four minutes to recover from any given interruption, we're constantly loosing valuable time to simply regain focus.

Turn the distractions off! View your inbox when you choose to— not when "it" wants you to. Go one step further and close your inbox until it is the appropriate time to check your e-mail messages again. You will feel instant gratification when you establish control.

Habit #3: Set boundaries.

Although connectivity around the clock can be extremely advantageous at times, do not abuse this luxury. Constant connectivity can be draining and stressful. Set specific boundaries around when you'll view your smartphone or BlackBerry. Hit the "off" switch when you walk into your home. Don't let browsing thorough your inbox become a nightly routine. Give the weekend a rest.

Habit #4: Stop sending urgent e-mail messages.

Urgent e-mail messages are toxic to your organization because they make it nearly impossible to follow through with tips 1-3. One "urgent" e-mail message from the boss will convey to employees that they must be on top of their e-mails at all times.

E-mail is designed for quick, inexpensive, efficient communication, not urgent situations. Encourage your work group to call or visit when something is needed in three hours or less.

Habit #5: Clean out your inbox.

Inboxes were never meant to be the disorganized reminder systems they are used for today. A cluttered inbox means a cluttered frame of mind. It serves no greater purpose than reminding you of what you haven't done and can't get to.

Empty your inbox. View each incoming message with the intention to sort for importance rather than work on them one by one. Assess the priority of each message and file them into folders to be retrieved at appropriate times. Start by developing a simple three-folder system to separate high-importance messages from the medium- and low-importance messages.

The Last Word

The way you manage your e-mail becomes a habit through repetition. To make these simple tips work, they have to become part of your daily routine. It takes commitment, self-control, and a new way of thinking, but the benefits make it all worthwhile.

Considering it takes three to four weeks to kick any habit, prepare yourself and focus your attention on replacing any bad habits with these healthy e-mail practices. Remember, less is more. Check your inbox with purpose. Put an end to flashing notifications. Set boundaries for yourself. Forget "urgent" e-mail messages. Empty that inbox -- every time. Finally, enjoy the newly enhanced, stress-free work day that comes with excellent e-mail management.

Marsha Egan is president and CEO of The Egan Group, Inc., an executive and life-coaching firm that motivates business leaders to master the people side of business growth. A highly regarded speaker, Ms. Egan has addressed over 50,000 people throughout the world. She is the author of Inbox Detox; Acanthus, 2009), which reveals a 12-step program to save individuals time and sanity by establishing habits of e-mail excellence.