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When email first became popular, in the era before smartphones, it was an asynchronous communication tool. You wrote the email and when the recipient was next on their computer and opened email, they would see your message and respond. These days, with push notifications and people almost always on, the cycle of send-response has sped up. That can be useful, in some cases, but a pain in other situations. We all feel frenzied, under assault from emails that seem to demand an immediate response.

Consultant Kevin Eikenberry says we need to use “schedule send” more frequently, out of consideration for others. This has different names with various email providers, but basically it allows you to write emails when it is convenient for you but be received when it seems convenient for the other person. So, if you like working nights, you don’t send an email – or a flurry of emails – to a colleague who receives them during their pre-bedtime check when no urgency is involved. (Or worse, wake them when a notification sounds.)

“You should value the mental health of your team and want them to have work/life balance. Sending emails during off hours is counterproductive,” he writes on LinkedIn.

But “schedule send” comes with negatives. He warns it can be an invitation for you to keep working in off hours, because you know it won’t affect others. You can also easily send too many to one person. “If I get four, six or 10 emails from you at 8 a.m., I know you wrote them after hours. One or two is fine – a bunch creates new overload for me and shows me when you were working,” he points out. So be moderate, and also don’t send an email just because you thought about an issue. You can just as easily jot down a note to talk to the person tomorrow.

Amid the email frenzy, consultant Lisa Kohn is increasingly finding she is receiving responses from clients, colleagues and friends where it’s clear they haven’t actually read the email they’re responding to. “They don’t answer the questions I’ve asked. They ask questions I’ve already answered. They ignore pertinent information,” she writes on her blog.

That can be frustrating but worse, it’s dangerous. She realizes that many, if not all, of us may be making decisions with missing information – or wrong information or no information. At the minimum, we are adding to the frenzy with extra emails that result from not properly focusing on them initially.

Here are four tips she offers to go a bit slower through your inbox:

  • Set aside a time to read emails: If you have a specific time allotted to emails, you’re more likely to pay attention to the emails and the details within them.
  • Don’t multitask while you handle email: “Even if you’re somewhat skimming through your emails, focus on them and them alone. Diluting your attention will cause you to potentially miss what you need to capture and rush through specifics that others will think you’ve gotten,” she says.
  • Set up a system to handle key information: Delete the messages that can be trashed but give attention to those that deserve higher importance. Find a way to capture information you need to know and remember. “Capture it mentally and perhaps electronically or, if you’re somewhat old school, on a piece of paper,” she writes.
  • Check for understanding: Consider reading the important emails twice. “Did you notice everything you were supposed to notice? Did you capture all the information? Do you know what you’re supposed to know, or do? Check your own grasp of what the email conveyed, and move (slowly) from there,” she says.

Indeed, moving slowly is key. She points out that when we are rushing from task to task, we get in the habit of speeding along. Instead, she recommends building your “slowness muscles,” by practising going slower. And that can include being more considerate to others by using “schedule send.”

Quick hits

  • Zen Habits blogger Leo Babauta recommends getting a small notebook or scrap of paper, and each time you reach for your phone, making a tally mark on the paper. This will bring awareness to reaching for your phone. Recording what you were feeling when you reached for it can also be useful.
  • If you feel anxious in a presentation and are speaking fast, public speaking coach Matt Abrahams advises deep belly breaths. He says the magic is in the exhale, which should be twice as long as inhalation.
  • The biggest decision you make daily, Ottawa thought leader Shane Parris says, is what to focus on.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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