Please Step Away From the In-Box

How Writing and Reading E-mail Detracts From Thinking

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Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
I find myself thinking about e-mail a lot these days. Between my laptop, BlackBerry and a separate cellphone that I also use, there is a lot of digital communication going on from my waking hours to the time I go to sleep. E-mails, text messages, BBM's (BlackBerry Messages), instant messaging -- it will become all-consuming if you let it.

And that's my point.

I believe e-mail is diverting our best waking hours from thinking, conceptualizing and dreaming big ideas.

It is very easy to come to the office, sit at the computer, and read/respond to e-mail for hours. Some of it is clearly useful, and maybe even billable. But let's face it -- most of it is tactical. Making basic decisions, commenting on someone else's point of view, requesting something, or thanking someone for doing something. Not much high-level thinking going on here. At the end of the day, you want to know that you've made a difference for your small agency, and spending most of it sending and receiving e-mail likely won't get you there. (The same can be said for too many meetings, but I'll save that for another post.)

Real thinking occurs when you shut off the digital tools and focus on the challenge at hand with just your mind, and perhaps a fellow collaborator or two.

So here are a few pointers to help rescue you from the gravitational pull of e-mail:
  • Resist the urge. There are times when you should read/reply and times when you shouldn't. Set aside 30 minutes at the beginning of your day, 30 minutes in the middle, and 30 minutes at the end of your day (at home, after my kids are in bed for me!), to go through your e-mail.

  • Reply all? Tell your staff and train your clients not to reply to all unless it is absolutely necessary. Makes me crazy when I see a "thx" come through to 34 people. It just wastes everyone's time.

  • Make exceptions to the rule. If you have a BlackBerry, or wireless handheld device, check e-mail waiting for the elevator, waiting to be seated in a restaurant or waiting in the reception area before a meeting. That is a good use of downtime and allows you to re-focus when you are back in the office.

  • Let people know that you won't respond immediately to their e-mails. If you respond immediately, you are only training senders to expect that kind of response every time.

  • Make a rule in your agency: No reading/replying in meetings. It's disrespectful to those presenting. And enforcing such a rule will forces you to turn your attention to the topic at hand.

  • Don't look at your computer screen when someone is talking to you. It speaks volumes about where your priorities are.
The truth is, I'm wired to my BlackBerry. But I have found that it is invigorating to walk away from the laptop and BB and use my mind more often. Productivity rises. And you exercise that gray matter above your shoulders.
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