How to NOT put the hammer through your inbox

November 17, 2020
How to NOT put the hammer through your inbox

Educators are dealing with a lot of new things in this COVID life we are now living. And our new normal involves A LOT of email.

Way more than our previous life did! 

When I left the classroom and entered into the non-profit space (shout out to the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego - go Toreros!!) doing youth development work, learning how to manage my email was something I had to learn fast. All of a sudden I wasn’t just communicating with parents and colleagues - email was now my connection to a vast network of colleagues, youth leaders, community organizations, donors, university staff, interns, intern applicants, and a variety of other stakeholders around the country and globe. 

Email was my lifeline.

And I had to get a grip on it. FAST.

Although our pre-COVID lives required a strong connection to our inbox, it’s now nothing like it used to be. So I wanted to share with you some tricks I’ve learned over the years that have helped me manage both my time and my sanity. Plus, I am a productivity geek and I love hacking my way through the seemingly impossible! I mean, as a single mom with two kids, a full time job, and a new business - it was imperative that I figured certain things out. Email was one of them.

Here’s what works for me:

Time blocking

Your inbox can be a big, black hole - an endless pit of wasted time - if we let it. And when I first started at the Kroc IPJ, I really let that inbox get the best of me. I swear there were days that I did nothing else except answer email. So I got smart about my time and created a routine for myself. First thing I’d do when I got into the office was get some good music going, check my calendar and make sure I wasn’t going to miss a call or meeting, then set my timer for 45-60 min, and get to crackin through those emails. I’d do as much as I could in that time and when the time was up, I moved on to other things. At the end of my day, I set aside another 30-45 min and check the inbox, handle what I could handle in that time, and then began my end-of-day shut down routine (end of day routines/rituals are just as important as start of day ones! They help us energetically shift out of the work mindset so we can be present for ourselves and loved ones when we get home!)

I highly encourage using a timer for time blocking email management. That way you can just focus on the task at hand and let the timer do its job! 

And if you really wanna step it up, then put a repeating task on your calendar so the time is physically and mentally blocked off for this one task.

NOTE: if you are just trying this out for the first time, don’t get frustrated if you aren’t making a dent on the number of emails sitting in your inbox. Just stick to the time you set aside and track your progress like neutral data. Are you fartin around too much with unimportant and distracting emails, getting too wordy with your responses and requests? This is you in training - so be patient, let the judgment go and ask yourself: what is working and what is not working? Then make adjustments from there.

CHALLENGE: In The Virgin Way, Richard Branson talks about how he will not read - or send - an email if it is longer than a tweet. What would happen to your time if you followed that suggestion?

Turn off notifications

Let’s be honest - notifications are our way of obsessing over control. It’s our FOMO running the show. Notifications and alerts are distracting and unnecessary. The sounds, badges, banners, alerts - all of it has got to go! Every time a ting, pop up, or banner flashes across the screen we lose focus and we create a glitch in our flow. So do yourself and your ability to stay focused a favor, and turn that shit off! At least for that hour you are time blocking. And if you wanna go even further, hit the do not disturb button and really create time and space for ultimate focus to happen! Then you’ll really be amazed at how quickly you can empty that inbox!! 

Do a quick sweep to delete

The first thing I do when I open my email is a quick sweep of all the messages sitting in there, waiting for my attention. Right away, I can tell there are messages that are meaningless and do not require my attention. I’ll check the senders and the subject lines and right away I know whether or not I am even going to open it. Like most people, my inbox is a reflection of subscribes - some of which are junk and some of which are legit. If they are legit, I decide whether or not I have time or want to give time to opening it based on the subject line. If it catches my attention and speaks to my heart, I open and read. If not, I delete without even opening it. If it is an email that I don’t remember subscribing to or I don’t want to receive anymore, then I open the email and hit the unsubscribe at the bottom.  

Sometimes, when I do the quick sweep to delete, I can watch my unread emails go from 45 to 25 in a matter of 5 seconds. Now, that is magic!!

RULE OF THUMB: If I find myself deleting email from a particular sender more than 5 times in a row, then that is my marker to unsubscribe completely. Obviously I don’t find it interesting or valuable enough to open it, so I might as well just do myself a favor and make it never shows up at all. 

Use the auto-responder

Now, I’ll be honest and admit that every once in a while, I come across people who way over use their auto-response and it is annoying AF. But that is a rarity and to be real, I actually think the auto-responder is underutilized. When we first went into quarantine, one of my clients who is a new mom and runs a graphic design company, turned on her auto-responder to notify people that she is running on half time because she now has her daughter with her at home full time. I applauded her for doing that because 1) it's a clear communication to prospective clients that she is there and she will reply as soon as possible, but that it may take a lil longer than usual; and 2) it allows her - energetically - to take a breath and have permission to handle all the things coming at her, one at a time. 

CHALLENGE: As educators running classrooms and campuses virtually, we can easily feel like we have to be on and available ALL the time because there are no bells signaling the end of the school day any more. Our inboxes are open for business 24/7. But we have to give ourselves time to shut down and turn off so we can have the energy and high vibes when we come back in on Monday mornings. So turn on your auto-responder (here’s a gmail quick tutorial) every Friday-Sunday or, if your inbox is insanely flooded, turn it on Monday-Friday from 3pm-6am to let people know that you will get back to them at your earliest convenience, something like this one cited by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Work Week:

"Due to high workload, I am currently checking and responding to e-mail twice daily at 12:00pm ET [or your time zone] and 4:00pm ET.

Shift your energetic relationship to your email

This might seem odd to you, and that’s ok. Just hear me out instead of bypassing this hack. If you are opening your email every day, kicking and screaming and cussing up a storm, thinking about what a waste of time it is, then you are never going to make peace with this part of your professional life. It is high time to shift your relationship with email and get over the fact that you’d rather be talking to people face to face. Instead of always thinking about it as a waste of time, what would it be like if you started thinking of it like an aqueduct or like a nervous system sending essential messages to the people on the receiving end? 

Vishen Lakhiani, founder of Mind Valley, writes in his book Buddha and the Badass: The Secret Spiritual Art of Succeeding at Work about how he views his phone as a portal, giving him access to the people he loves - the people who work for him - no matter where he is in the world. What would happen if you started thinking about your inbox as a portal to all the students who are looking to you for love, attention and good grades? And as a portal to their parents who are trying so hard to raise successful kids? 

I want to add one last thing...

Teacher morale is at an all-time low. Retirement notices are at an all time high. Educators are feeling the stress of public judgment, the anxiety of not being able to fully serve their students, and the overwhelm of 24 hour access. So I say this with all the love in my heart: 

Stop working when you are not supposed to be working. 

Stop bringing work home with you thinking you’ll get to it on Sunday morning. Stop working late into the night or getting up 2 hours earlier than you used to. And I say all of this as a recovering work-aholic. It is so easy to just keep going, and it is so dang easy to let that inbox become the judge and jury on your work ethic. You don’t need that inbox to say “zero unread messages” to know that you are doing the best you can and you are being the best you can be for your students and school community. So be at peace with that and let the inbox be what it is every weekend and every weekday after 4pm. 

And if you are feeling the burn of burnout or the sting of your mental health banging on your desk, please please please get some help. Call me and if I can’t help you, I will do my best to connect you with someone who can. You are better than burnout and there are tons of resources to help you. Please consider me one of them.

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