How to manage email overload the hare and tortoise system

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Emails. The albatross around every knowledge worker’s neck. Overwhelming them, and sinking them further into stress. For many workers, email can seem like the ball and chain keeping them solely focused on their inbox; reading emails, replying to them, only to have five more to read and answer to every one you’ve ticked off the list.

We feel chained to our inbox, unable to break free. Our homes become our offices, as we return to our abodes, only to get notifications on our phones, unable to leave them be. According to Blue Hornet, this is a serious problem, with over a third of people checking their email throughout the day. How can this cycle be broken?

By excessively checking our emails or being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of emails landing in our inbox, you’re killing your productivity as well as your quality of life. If you’re in desperate need of combatting this issue, find out how Hares & Tortoises can help.

So, what do the psychologists say?

Nancy from Psychology Today, tells us that the main reason why we check our emails is because it’s an addiction, formed from ‘Lottery Brain.’ Though, for many of us, this addiction is not enjoyable, which leads us to ask the question of ‘Why do we check our emails if we’re not enjoying the process?’ Well, addictions make no rational sense. They are born from repetitive behaviour, and our email checking is akin to how some of us gamble, shop or even scroll our social media feeds when we’re bored. All of these actions become addictive because we can get a surge of dopamine from good news or happy notifications; we’re looking for something exciting, a rush.

When it comes to emails, this can be through a job offer, an email from a friend or loved one, or even congratulations on a job well done. What’s more irrational is the fact that such good news is rare – much like winning at a slot machine. Instead, our brains are programmed to ‘what ifs.’ For instance, “I know it’s unlikely that we’ll win, but what if we do this time?”

To first step to beating any addiction is awareness. By simply noticing your impulse to check, you’re able to put yourself in check instead. If you have a trigger, then you could also keep these triggers at bay. Perhaps it’s the noise of a certain alert on your phone; change your notification tones, so that you’re not associating emails with a certain noise. Remember to ask yourself ‘Why?’ when you find yourself reaching for your inbox.

Is our productivity truly affected by constantly checking our email?

Surely, looking at our emails means we’re being productive? Well, in fact, the opposite is true. When it comes to our productivity, it is, instead, affected by our constant checking of emails. Paul Atchley writes in the Harvard Business Review, “Based on over a half-century of cognitive science and more recent studies on multitasking, we know that multitaskers do less and miss information. It takes time (an average of 15 minutes) to re-orient to a primary task after a distraction such as an email. Efficiency can drop by as much as 40%.”

What Atchley is saying then, is that every time you become distracted by a new email pinging on your desktop or smartphone, when you start multi-tasking, your attentions are split. While multi-tasking is possible, it should only be used for smaller, simpler tasks. For instance, unloading the dishwasher while speaking to your spouse. What you shouldn’t be doing is trying to type up an important piece of content while answering an email at the same time.

Each knowledge worker receives many emails during the day, which can easily lead to multi-tasking. Although we’re advised that multi-tasking isn’t the best way to complete a job, we all do it. We multitask because we want to excel and keep our inboxes clear; we’re also reminded by our emails because of those pesky notification noises. What can be done, though, to keep ourselves from being tempted to multi-task whenever an email is begging to be opened and responded to? How do we find the time to do our deep work?

Cal Newport, the author of ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’ says “there is a cost to task switching.” However, there are so many distractions in today’s world; we end up switching tasks at an alarming rate. Pareto’s principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) is that out of our workload, 80% of the workload is 'deep work’ while the other 20% are distracting tasks that can wait. Instead of focusing on the 80% that would make us productive and successful, we end up tending to the 20%.

Email is considered the biggest distraction in the workplace, with Gmail, Outlook and any other email system pinging and vying for our attention, both on our computers and phones, when we should be working or even having a break. How can you counter the curse of distracting emails, though?

The Hare and Tortoise System

We’re all aware of the story The Hare and The Tortoise, but many us have forgotten about the moral of the story as we’ve become older. To recap, the hare and the tortoise decide to race one another; the hare, although naturally faster, decides to sprint ahead, putting a lot of distance between him and the tortoise. However, the hare decides to take a nap, sure he’s ahead enough for it not to impact him. When he’s sleeping, the tortoise overtakes him, eventually winning the race, and proving that the ‘slow and steady’ approach can be just, if not more, productive than sprinting ahead.

This concept should be adopted when it comes to looking at your emails. By implanting slower and more precise time management skills, you’re able to do the deep work without racing ahead of the finishing line. The challenge is to be less distracted, and yet still be able to manage your emails. Using the hare and tortoise system will enable you to do this, where instead of opening every email and dealing with it as quickly as possible, you take your time with the current task at hand and get the email once you’ve come to the end of the present job you’re undergoing.

If you’re wondering where to start when implementing this approach to your workload, here’s how. Using the hare and tortoise system is easier than expected. If the time is between the hour and 20 past, then look at your inbox. Work fast, with the goal of opening and responding to as many emails as possible. Then, when the time is between 21 minutes past and 1 minute to the hour, do the deep work, whatever that may entail.

How can I implement this new approach at work?

All businesses are different; this is a fact. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t make use of this system, or that it cannot work. To implement this strategy as best as possible, you need to be transparent. The next time you’re in a meeting, tell your subordinates or clients that you want to be more productive and that this new approach has shown great results to your productivity. Although people may be nervous being out-of-reach or uncontactable, you should say that if it is an absolute emergency, then they should text you or send a Skype message instead.

What’re the first steps?

Putting the Hare and Tortoise system into effect isn’t difficult. Draw a clock on a Post-It note with two segments on the clock face. Write an ‘H’ in the 12 to 12:20 segment, and then write a ‘T’ in the 12:21 to 12:59 segment. Put the Post-It note where you can see it throughout the day. Remember, be the Hare and the Tortoise, not one or the other!