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Finding Your Email Goldilocks Zone

The best rules are the ones that work for you

In the modern workplace, email is a fact of life. An unopened inbox can feel like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. What’s waiting for you in there? Devoting some time to email diminishes that stress, but giving it too much time and attention has a way of increasing stress and creating a sense of being ‘always on.’  Where’s the goldilocks zone? Here are a few of our best tips, with input from some of our colleagues. In all this advice, there’s a lot of room for individuality. What relieves stress for some creates it for others. The key is to find your own email goldilocks zone.

Triage

Respond based on what you get paid to do. Here’s how a couple of our colleagues deal with this differently:

Ankith works in IT, and being highly responsive to emails is part of being good at his job. He checks sender and subject for anything urgent as soon as he wakes up, goes through his inbox in detail as soon as he arrives at the office, then starts working on the most urgent request first. His habit is to open emails as soon as possible after receiving them and to reply to all emails before the end of the day.

We can be like Pavlov’s dogs with email. Unless being highly responsive to email is part of what you get paid to do, you don’t have to respond to every stimulus immediately. 

Mark spends most of his day in meetings and on phone calls with clients. He stays focused on those person-to-person interactions by turning off his email. Sometimes that means he doesn’t get to email until the very end of the day. When he does, he deletes what is irrelevant, responds to what is most urgent, and prioritizes how to respond to the rest. His policy is to respond to emails within 24 hours. For him, this way of focusing on what is most important at any given moment is the key to reducing stress as well as creating better relationships

Consider the source. One of our colleagues, Ellen, says clients get first dibs with coworkers following closely behind. If she doesn’t know the sender, her policy is to hit delete.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Schedule and Automate

Our colleague, Roger, sets filters to block junk and to prioritize emails by subject, sender and content. He blocks an hour in the morning and another hour in the evening to respond to non-urgent emails. 

When you plan to be out of the office, use autoreply, including contact information for colleagues who can provide immediate assistance. People may send one email, but they’re less likely to send four more on other topics if they know you’re out. Then, depending on how stressed you get about unread email, you can do one of two things:

Unplug – Don’t check email until you get back to the office. If this is your approach, block a couple of hours on your calendar to get up to speed when you get back.

Check it with limits – Decide on a schedule that you can live with (once a day?). Set a timer for 30 minutes or an hour. Triage.

Organize

Again, this is very individualized. What makes you feel the least stressed?

  • Kim uses folders and strives for Inbox = 0 (but rarely achieves it). She admits that changing her goal might lower her stress.
  • Larry keeps anything he might want to refer back to in his inbox. It doesn’t bother him to have a very full inbox.
  • Roger immediately files read emails for no action or for follow up so that only unread emails show up in his inbox.
  • Our colleague, Maribel, flags action items and notes deadlines on her calendar right away. She color-codes and files emails she needs to keep into different folders according to client or project (she even keeps a ‘funnies’ folder).

All of us operate with a ‘touch it once’ rule. If we open an email, our goal is to make progress – delete, reply, file or flag for later.

Photo by Kim Turnage

Just Say No

Have a rule for when it’s time to stop emailing and just pick up the phone. Often a quick conversation can save you several exchanges via email. Our colleague, Cody, aborts emails when they start getting long and detailed in favor of calling or visiting someone’s office. He says: 

The efficiency of verbal conversation cannot be overstated.

Unsubscribe from emails that you never open or read. Better yet, never subscribe in the first place.

Help other people manage the flow and contribute to a healthy email culture. Think twice before you hit ‘Reply All.’ Think three times before you send an ‘All Associates’ email. And ask yourself: do you really need to cc: or bcc: someone?

What fits you?

If there’s one theme in these tips it’s this: What you do has to fit you. Experiment with some of these ideas and see how they help you find your email goldilocks zone. We’d love to hear what you learn!

We’re grateful to our friends and colleagues, Ellen Hoeppner, Ankith Raj, Maribel Cruz, Cody PfeifferMark Epp and Roger Wilson for their contributions to this article.

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