This is What Happened When I Stopped Responding to Emails in Real Time

I am attached to my head. I like to keep it firmly screwed on between my shoulders. So when I was three weeks out from my wedding day and slammed with two brain-consuming work projects (BWPs), I knew I had to figure out a way to keep my head from spinning right off.

Arthur can’t be the only one keeping me from flying off into Stress Land.

The natural target for my attention was my email inbox. Natural because as a knowledge worker, it is the source of 95% of my tasks, where I manage 95% of my projects, and how I communicate with 95% of my co-workers (give or take).

Inspiration

A couple years ago, I read an I Done This blog post that declared asynchronous communication is the future of work. That is to say, the practice of one person stopping by your desk or calling you up on the phone to deliver information at the same time as you consume it (i.e. synchronously, aka in real time) will eventually seem as quaint as a mimeograph. The practice of sending a message for you to read at a time that’s convenient for you (i.e. asynchronously) will become standard.

A bold claim.

And one that I’ve not been able to shake loose. Ever since I learned about the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication, I can see them sprouting like mushrooms after heavy rain, and I do not bite.

With that predisposition, I was primed to notice and latch onto my friend and internet wizard Kai Davis’s email signature:

Emphasis added.

“That seems smart,” I thought. “I could do that.”

I had never seen that kind of email signature from an Extension employee. Then again, I had never seen social media platform icons in an Extension employee’s signature before I added them to mine.

Mm, yes, how edgy.

Ever the digital communications pioneer, I slashed the social media plugs and added this sentence:

To maintain my sanity this January, I am only responding to email twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

And then I got to work.

Theory to Practice

Here’s how it played out:

  • When I got into work in the morning, I scanned my inbox for any emails that looked time-sensitive or like I could draft a response in two minutes or less. I saved the drafts, minimized the inbox, and turned my attention to a BWP.
  • At 10 a.m., I re-read the responses I drafted, hit send three to twelve times, and imagined with great satisfaction a burst of emails flying from my inbox to my colleagues’. I rescanned my inbox (but because I hadn’t sent any emails yet that day, there weren’t as many coming in), then refocused on BWP.
  • At 3 p.m., I repeated the process.

I noticed that typically by the afternoon, my concentration would be wavering. So then I would break focus from the BWP and tackle emails requiring more than two minutes of attention.

Other implementation notes:

  • I allowed myself to initiate email chains whenever was convenient for me
  • I gave myself a window of up to half an hour on either side of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. in which to hit “send.”

What I Noticed

The most noticeable difference was how focused I could get on a BWP once my inbox was minimized and I knew I would get back to it at a specific time. Part of the increased focus was the all-consuming nature of the projects, and part of it was the freedom gained by releasing myself from synchronicity.

Along with greater focus, I felt a greater sense of control, less anxiety, and less frenetic energy brought on by the monitor/respond email cycle so many of us get sucked into.

To whit, my head stayed firmly screwed on between my shoulders.

In addition, because I built in a pause before responding to most emails, I ended up doing less work. Sometimes a request had been aimed at more than one person and someone else on the thread took care of it. Sometimes a question tossed my way would be figure out by the asker before I got it. GO TEAM.

What Other People Noticed

In the month of January, only two or three people mentioned anything about the addition to my signature. Once when I responded to what I perceived to be a time-sensitive request outside the given time, my co-worker chastised me for being on email. I also got a note of appreciation here and a curious question there.

What’s Next

More less responding! I enjoyed my January so much (and not just because of the wedding day) that I updated my email signature again:

To maintain my sanity, I respond to emails at 9 a.m., 1 p.m., and 5 p.m. For a more immediate response, include “Time Sensitive” in your subject line.

How about you? Do you limit when you respond to emails? How did you start? What benefits do you accrue? What works for you? Inspire me.