Email quandary


How often do you check your email?

I have a part-time writing gig involving some freelance articles as well as a weekly column for the local paper. I also volunteer for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, helping out with events such as organizing the local awareness walk and trying to set up the first support group for patients here in the Grand Valley. I also maintain two blogs (including this one), both of which receive a fair number of emails and comments on a daily basis. And lastly, I do a lot of my research for my novel online, doing everything from scouring Web sites related to World War II/Singapore/comfort women, to subscribing to Google Alerts for any articles or blog posts that may come up that have anything to do with those subjects.

In other words, even without a full-time “day job,” I still get upwards of dozens of emails a day. Some of them pop up in my “personal” email address, which I’ve had for about nine years and which only a few friends know about. I never use it to subscribe to anything, nor do I use it for any business-related purposes, so I never get junk mail in that.

I do, however, have a “public” email address which I use to subscribe to online newsletters, sign up for contests and other events that I would like to keep track of. That’s the oldest, currently-existing email account that I have, dating back to 1997. I get at least 50 emails on that, mostly newsletters but also some junk.

Then there’s my work email address. That’s the one I use for job applications, sending queries to editors/publications, responding to emails from readers to my column/articles/writing blog, and other work-related correspondence. It’s not nearly as widely known as the public email address I use above — I try to keep them separate and not clutter up my work address with even work-related subscriptions — but it gets its fair share of traffic.

And of course, there’s the email address associated with my other, even more active blog. I have a good number of subscribers on that one, which means comments that need responding to and which show up on that email on a regular basis.

All in all, the number of emails I get per day is generally anywhere from 50-100, sometimes even more. That’s not an especially daunting number for many people, especially those in high-ranking executive positions, who may get literally thousands of email a day. Still, even a dozen emails addressed personally to you can take your entire morning — if not the whole day — just to read and respond to.

I use Mozilla’s Thunderbird email program, a fantastic and very stable open source software program that’s very similar to Microsoft Outlook. So similar, in fact, that Outlook users searching for an alternative will find it super-easy to make the transition. In any case, I’ve generally gotten into the habit of opening Thunderbird first thing in the morning and basically just keeping it open throughout the day. I only shut it down when I turn off my laptop, usually before going to bed.

I have it set to notify me of new mail every ten minutes. I’ve always been of the belief that one should respond to email as soon as possible, especially if an answer can be written in less than five minutes. It’s one less thing you have to worry about, right, not to mention the fact that in the process of doing so, you adhere to that classic time management rule: Handle each item on your to-do list no more than once. Get the email, read it for content, respond, and voila! You’re done with it.

Of course, as I’m sure you’ve found, jumping to answer each email the moment it drops in your box can have the exact opposite effect of rendering yourself incapable of completing any task you’ve set out for yourself that day. Studies have shown that it can take someone a long time to reorient oneself to the project at hand once one succumbs to the allure of the Inbox, the telephone and the occasional random visitor dropping by “to say hi.” Before you know it, the day’s over, you’ve answered all your emails and telephone calls but have yet to get to the second slide on your 45-slide PowerPoint presentation.

The phenomenally productive Trent over at The Simple Dollar allows himself two email sessions a day; the rest of the time, the email program isn’t just ignored, it’s turned off altogether. I know of someone else who answers email only once a day — first thing in the morning — after which he shuts Outlook off and doesn’t look at it again the next day. His clients have gotten used to that and are now in the habit of calling him if something is truly urgent. Even then, he only returns phone calls in the late afternoon, around 4:00. Is he productive? Hell yes. Has he lost any clients because of his lack of 24/7 availability? Perhaps. But he doesn’t really need them because he’s plenty booked now. His clients appreciate the fact that when he’s working on their project, he’s not constantly being interrupted by unrelated phone calls or distracted by a barrage of emails. When he’s working on a project, he’s single-minded in his focus.

I think I’m going to start doing that myself. I’ve found that my day can easily go down the drain with nothing to show for it but a handful of answered emails. I keep checking my half-dozen email accounts every hour, sometimes every half-hour, and when Thunderbird buzzes me with yet another message, I drop everything I do to read it, even if it’s not urgent.

I’m going to try and experiment with writing and answering emails only once a day, in the late afternoon, between 3:00-4:00. My energy levels tend to flag around that time anyway, making me less productive in the truly challenging and creative projects I have on my plate. I think that that may be the best hour for me to respond to emails and comments, as they generally don’t require the full-speed brainpower of, say, my novel or my writing assignments.

What about you? How often do you check email? Do you have an email response system that has worked for you?