Q: I'm crushed by e-mail. If I leave my desk for five minutes, 10 more come in. Some — not all — need immediate attention, but it's hard to create realistic expectations and keep from getting distracted. What can I do?
A: Self-discipline, communication and a plan will get you through.
Start with a deep breath. You'll be able to figure out when to switch gears and when to defer, and you'll improve your ability to focus as a result. Your level of resistance and frustration can become a second, even bigger barrier to productivity.
Be clear about what e-mails you're likely to receive that you need to achieve your goals or that are truly time-sensitive. Hint: Just because the sender puts URGENT in the header doesn't mean that it is. If you know what is truly important, such as decisions you're awaiting on projects, you can learn to discern them more easily.
Now for your plan. The suggestion to check e-mail at set times often gets rejected because there are things warranting immediate attention. However, this approach does not need to be "all or nothing." If you need to be attuned to the flow of e-mail, try keeping your alerts turned on so that you see what is coming in. But here's where the self-discipline enters. If it's one of your "hot list" items, attend to it right away. If it isn't — and most won't be — ignore it or file it in a "needs action" folder. Then, at a scheduled time, say, 3 p.m., go in and review all your e-mails.
There are a couple of implementation challenges in this approach. Additionally, subject lines don't always contain helpful information. Bring this up with your team. Content might include the project, the action needed, if it's information only, that type of thing. If your team agrees on what will be useful, it'll be more readily adopted.
Expectations are another challenge. Communication about your triage approach will help so that your senders understand why they receive a response in two minutes in some cases, and two hours in others.
Then, back to self-discipline. It can be tempting to read the online office newsletter or open the birthday announcement, but move these to the "break time" category. Have a look at these when you've completed one task and are preparing to move to another. Pair it with getting up for a quick walk or stretch for even more refreshment.
E-mail can eat all your time, but you can take charge rather than succumb to the tyranny of faux urgency.
Liz Reyer is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes.