We all know the feeling – you sit down ready and raring to go on a project or some creative work. You’re feeling excited and motivated to get going.
But first, you just need to answer that one email. And then… you’re sucked in, going through the requests that fill your inbox. Finally you’re all done and ready to get back to what you were supposed to be doing.
You’re a bit less energised now, but you can finally get back to work, only to hear ‘ping’ – you’re now getting replies from the emails you’ve just sent.
Before you know it, another day has slipped through your fingers and you’ve made no progress on the work and projects you actually wanted to work on.
Coping with Email Overload
We all know that email can be a real distraction to actually achieving your goals but as a freelancer, the truth is we can’t live without it.
And really, email is an amazing tool for us. We just need to be careful about how we use it and think deeply about the impact it has on our days.
Many books and productivity experts argue that you should be ultra-defensive of your time, and be ruthless. Schedule in one period, or a maximum two periods to check your emails at the start and end of each day.
The logic is that you have to take control of your day and set boundaries. The problem is that this is just not really practical for most of us freelancers on the frontline. If a client has a problem, it’s often time-sensitive and you need to react fast.
I do a lot of design work and sometimes you just need to react straight away. Maybe there’s an issue with a file about to be printed – with thousands of pounds on the line if the mistake is not corrected before the deadline.
Equally, another problem with shutting down your inbox for the day is when it comes to enquiries. Research shows that if you’re quick to respond to an enquiry, and you’re able to quote before other freelancers have replied, you’re far, far more likely to get the job.
If you wait until the end of the day, you’ll have given off a bad impression and will be much less likely to get the work. The client may already have approved another freelancer to get started on the work.
By not checking emails all day, you could easily miss out on major opportunities to find new clients, or to impress and help the people you are currently working with.
Of course, I’m not saying you should be a slave to your inbox and check it constantly – but clearly, the right balance needs to be found.
Finding Your Inbox Balance
Checking your emails roughly once an hour is a schedule that I’ve settled on which works well.
This leaves enough room for you to react when you need to.
Even urgent requests are usually solvable within this time frame. It also gives you good chunks of solid time to get real work done, with your inbox out of sight and out of mind.
In the book Indistractable, Nir Eyal talks of a study that really emphasises the damaging effects that switching tasks and checking your email in the middle of other work can have.
“A study published in the International Journal of Information Management found office workers took an average of sixty-four seconds after checking emails to reorient themselves and get back to work.”Nir Eyal
This might not sound like too much as a one off, but if you’re constantly doing it all day every day, it will really waste time and drain your mental energy. It really adds up if this is your typical way of working.
We know from research that switching tasks drains our brain’s energy, so it’s best to do it as infrequently as you can.
So let’s look at some more solutions that you can use to tame your inbox.
1. Batch your replies
This is often a good tactic for dealing with email. Rather than responding individually, group non-urgent emails together and deal with them during a block of time.
This can help you to avoid the brain drain of task-switching and really power through the task at hand.
You’re in email reply mode, and you can churn though them far more efficiently this way.
2. Be strategic with your replies
Now you have to be careful with this, but sometimes it’s better to think twice before actually hitting the send button once you’ve written your replies.
When it comes to non-urgent emails, the danger of replying straight away is that the other party then shoots an email straight back, and you get caught in a costly loop of distraction.
Sometimes you can write the email and then simply wait a while before you actually hit the send button, often leaving the sending until the end of the day can work best. Of course, you have to use your judgement here, but doing this wisely can really help you to reclaim your time. But, you do have to make sure that you actually go back and hit send later on!
Some email services actually have this feature built in. You can write the email and then schedule for it to be sent later.
As an added bonus – I’ve actually found this helps when you need to send uncomfortable emails – like asking for more money for a project or saying no to something.
If you write it, but then schedule it to send later rather than immediately, it feels like less of a big deal, because you know you can go back and edit the email if you decide something needs to be changed. It’s not so instant.
Nine times out of ten you won’t go back or even think about it again. So the email sends while you’ve moved on.
3. Pick up the phone
Of course, another option to save time is to simply pick up the phone.
Often a two-minute call can save countless emails of misunderstandings and explanations.
Even with emojis, it can still be hard to interpret emotions and feelings from cold, hard emails.
If it will save an endless email thread, it’s usually better to just pick up the phone.
4. Use Pomodoros or time blocking
For this kind of email management system to work, it helps to be comfortable blocking your time. This allows you to focus on one task and go deep into it without distractions.
My favourite productivity strategy, which I use every single day is the Pomodoro Technique. This involves working solidly for 25 minutes on a defined task and then taking a five-minute break once you’re done.
You’d be amazed at what you can achieve in 25 minutes, but it also breaks the mental resistance to projects by cutting them down into non-intimidating chunks.
Nowadays I usually double up on my pomodoros and do 50 minutes at a time. This system allows me to get into deep focus mode and get serious work done in chunks. During these times, I try to avoid any kind of attention switching.
It also has the advantage of allowing me to work on and make progress on multiple projects each day. This is essential for most freelancers.
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