Why is Email the Hardest Thing You Must Do Each Day?

What makes email the number one hated activity in corporate life? It may have little to do with the nuisance it has become, and everything to do with incomplete decisions we need to make daily.

Studies have shown that email consumes some 20% of each employee’s day. At the same time, 33% would rather clean a toilet than go through all their email. Why the aversion to a technology that’s supposed to help? Why do so many wish it would just go away?

It all comes down to friction.

Email delivers frictionless communication at scale. Today, there’s no need to use a typewriter, secretary, printer, phone or conference room to send a simple message to upwards of millions of people. As such, electronic messaging will never go away, even if it’s being slightly reshaped by apps like WhatsApp and Slack.

Its permanence and ubiquity mean that we must forever tolerate universal irritants like spam and irrelevant CC’s, but these aren’t the main reasons for all the hate. Instead, the problem we face is that of decision overwhelm.

To explain, let’s set aside messages from the non-essential newsletters, updates and birthday reminders you receive. By contrast, critical emails are ones you can’t delete with impunity: they require you to pause and think before answering.

The problem is that such messages come into our Inboxes at all times of the day, even while we are sleeping. We can’t control when people send them, so they arrive mixed in with the stuff that’s not essential. This makes it hard to focus.

However, you do have control over the following three actions. Mastering each of them can be transformational to the quality of your decision-making.

Action Mode #1 – Arbitrary Skimming and Scanning – Stop

While there are a few companies which require employees to scan their Inboxes every few minutes (thereby ruining their productivity) a clear best practice has emerged. In summary, it states one should never randomly “check” email i.e. skim. Instead, it should be a consciously scheduled activity.

What about emergencies? Savvy organizations train their staff to use other methods such as phone calls or texts for urgent communications.

The fact is, the habit of scanning email leaves you at the mercy of other people’s agendas. You end up playing electronic ping-pong, being your least effective.

The solution is to learn how to use the following two action modes for managing your incoming email.

Action Mode #2 – Light Triage – Start

Instead of skimming, you should create a handful of opportunities each day to organize incoming messages. In these triage sessions, you are rapidly dispatching messages to parts of your system (other than your Inbox) so that they can be dealt with later.

In this mode, you only offer short replies, if any at all. This isn’t the time for making decisions about the content of email messages. It’s the time for deciding which ones require actual thought and later consideration, then putting them in position, ready for the hard thinking they call for.

Action Mode #3 – Heavy Lifting – Start

These are longer periods of time devoted to making difficult decisions related to specific email messages. They need to be pre-scheduled and heavily guarded against distractions or external intrusions so that you can make quality commitments and deliver clear communications.

In essence, you are batching the hardest work you’ll do each day into a single time-slot reserved for your very best performance.

Unfortunately, most of us jump between these three Action Modes randomly when we open our Inboxes, frittering away precious time, attention and energy.

The result? You fail to realize that the kind of intensity needed for Action #2 (quick, short decisions) is different from that of Action #3 (deep thinking and major commitments.) As such, you rarely put yourself in the right mindset to do your hardest, best work. Instead, you try to squeeze email between other commitments.

Ultimately, you create problems for yourself and others. At the volumes of email typical of a manager, you never catch up, so others form a poor impression of your ability to stay on top of what (they think) is a simple chore.

The answer is to use your calendar to block separate times for Mode #2 and Mode #3 email. It’s the only way to manage the volume of decisions your job requires.

In this context, you must be continuously improving your email management as a means for making effective decisions. Do so and you’ll continue to be a competent professional who uses his/her core tools effectively.

Stop Mailing In Your Participation

Have you ever been part of a project or organization in which a colleague is giving only a minimal effort? This behaviour, which some call “mailing it in”, may be killing your team’s success.

For several years in the 1990’s, I participated in a programme in which I was trained to teach 50-150 person seminars. The head trainer was the most effective instructor, consistently receiving the best scores, but new trainees like me had a tricky challenge trying to figure out exactly what made him outstanding.

One of his traits was an uncanny skill: he could lead each event as if it were his last, giving attendees a fresh experience each time. As a high performer who took each seminar to a different level, he found new ways to make things compelling even when they were, on the surface, mundane.

While I couldn’t replicate his ability, it was fascinating to observe someone who never once “mailed it in.” The phrase refers to the human tendency to do the minimum possible to get by, thereby providing only a weak substitute. According to Wiktionary, the term means “to fulfill a responsibility with a minimum, rather than appropriate, level of effort”, aka “phoning it in”.

In my column a month ago about governance and leadership, I mentioned that many organization’s board members are mailing it in. I wrote: “In some of our (client’s) strategic planning retreats, they either decline to attend, fail to show up, arrive late, leave early, or spend the entire caucus distracted by email.” Or Zoom. Or a live football match on YouTube…a real episode.

But what’s the big deal? Why should you care? After all, mailing it in has been a part of Jamaican history ever since Columbus met and tried to enslave the Tainos. Their response was probably typical of all oppressed people: to pretend to be doing as much as possible while actually doing the minimum.

Here are a few reasons to highlight this tendency that may help address it in your organization.

1. An Insidious Form of Corruption

We Jamaicans often treat corruption as if it’s a novel coronavirus – a once in a lifetime event that arrives out of the blue all of a sudden, shocking us all. Consider that, in your company, corruption starts with something tiny: when someone mails it in.

In other words, whenever staff members offer up “a minimum, rather than appropriate, level of effort” they are doing more than being lazy. In fact, they are undermining the very mission of the enterprise.

Strangely enough, they could be well-intentioned. The truth is, we are imperfect, which means that sometimes we miss the mark entirely. Some departments or boards do so for years at a time, eventually doing great damage to the very cause they are trying to uphold.

However, the important part that’s missing is a tool of accountability: consistent and transparent feedback, especially in those moments when you are mailing it in. In other words, when you don’t have someone who is willing to let you know when you are merely putting in a half-effort, you are likely to slide into a micro-corruption which masses into a mission-killing culture.

To illustrate: for every Usain Bolt there is another person with equal talent. The only difference is often a lack of accountability: continuous, corrective conversations between the performer and his/her coach. Without such direct help at unexpected times, it’s hard to achieve much.

In firms with such dysfunctional cultures, pointing fingers is a wasted effort. The sad fact is, whenever a group of individuals don’t practice holding each other to a high standard on a regular basis, mailing it in becomes the inescapable, mediocre norm.

2. Lack of Role Models

Unfortunately, when this corruption leaks in at the highest level it’s a different kettle of fish. Why? We Jamaicans tend to pay a lot of attention to hierarchies.

For example, a board that fails in its basic duties (i.e. to have AGM’s, regular meetings, challenging conversations, high performing members) sends a signal to the company: it tolerates corruption.

Over time, anyone who attempts to raise the bar in any part of the organization can be thwarted. They will learn or be told that they are being unfair, or unreasonable. And if they look for support at a higher level, they find the same corruption.

At that point, staff members quit. Either they start a job-hunt or worse: they remain in the job and lapse into mailing it in. They join the club.

Sometimes, a knowledge of these two costs is enough to spur a transformation. Use them to show your organization the places where it’s killing its own success by collectively mailing it in.