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photo by Jason Rogers via Flickr

photo by Jason Rogers via Flickr

A client of mine just painlessly reduced his e-mail volume by 50%. And here’s how it came about.

Self-described as “completely stressed out”, I asked this client to notice what goes on for him when he does what he says causes him the most stress: tackling his InBox. A relatively young senior leader in a large organization, he’s said to me before that he wishes he lived in an age where the InBox was a physical pile on his desk because he bets that people would think twice before coming in his office to add to the stack (or they’d use his Assistant a lot more!)

“So”, he says, “I hold my breath, open my laptop and try desperately to just reduce the number of messages.”

“You hold your breath?”, I clarify?

“Yes! I noticed that I actually hold my breath in long stretches as I ‘ready….go!’ through as much as I can in the 20 minutes between calls or meetings or project work. I can’t imagine it’s healthy, but I know why I do it: I am so overwhelmed by the volume of stuff, like looking down at a freezing lake preparing to jump in, I just brace myself and do it. It surely won’t be so bad once I’m in.”

This man hated his e-mail for hijacking his life. Furthermore, in the process of exploring this relationship, he realized that part of the animosity stemmed from his inability to focus on strategic tasks when he was being “pinged” all day long. He craved time to think; to develop some of his innovative ideas. When I asked him what those ideas were, it came out pretty half-baked (he had to go back to his notes), because he had spent so little time on this work. He was acutely aware that his reactive habits modelled behaviour for others, including those whose performance he evaluated on bringing fresh ideas to the table.

We brainstormed how to declutter his mind, ease his anxiety and free up time for doing the bigger-picture thinking he craved. We landed on something simple and impactful: Unsubscribe.

Then we pinpointed the details. And I’ll invite you to take these on if you feel like you could use more headspace:

1) Unsubscribe from updates – Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. 

When you have downtime or a particular need, sure – go on and have a look. But if you’re not in a job that requires being on top of your network’s minute-by-minute movements, don’t bother. Change your settings.

2) Unsubscribe from shopping sites. (And don’t give stores your e-mail in the first place!)

What would really happen if you only shopped when you needed something as opposed to being swayed by an “irresistible” sale? It’s not a rhetorical question. The answer is you’d save a bunch for every one of those dollars you don’t spend in a month and retire earlier or take a vacation and really relax instead of calling online shopping your downtime. You’d also save time clicking around the online shop, which always takes longer than you think it will.

3) Professional organizations are sometimes no better.

Professional associations and alumni networks can sometimes send messages as irrelevant and distracting as shoe stores as they try to push courses, surveys and special events. Check the settings in your account to get only what you want. To stay connected, create a monthly reminder to check up on interesting networking and professional development opportunities in key areas rather than having them come to you.

4) Unsubscribe to email chains on which you’re cc’d.

This isn’t as easy as the click of a button, but it’s as easy as a polite request. Likely you’re being included because someone thinks you might want to know this info (in an “FYI” sense) or you might get upset if you’re excluded. If someone needs your input, you’d be in the “to” line. Otherwise, the mass e-mail culprit could probably give you a heads-up ahead of time or the bottom line after the fact, in an short e-mail or a call. 

My client was over the moon to gain time with himself to do more meaningful work as a leader. Sometimes the most effective was to gain control is to look at what takes up more than its fair share of space in your life (or your InBox). The things that take up your valuable time should be by invitation only.