One day while living in Central Asia, I almost stopped using email.
My inbox was so full, new email was being returned as “undeliverable” like “return to sender” stamped envelopes from another century. I remember thinking, I don’t have to use email at all, do I?
Of course, I couldn’t abandon email then.
There will be no abandoning it now.
Email is still a critical communication tool in work and the world. And it’s not going away. If you choose to ignore email, you will most likely miss vital connections with your organization, supporters, family, and friends in your home country.
Every cross-cultural worker needs to manage their email inbox.
Stay with me here.
Email does not have to be the anxiety and guilt inducing thing it is for so many people.
If you have hundreds of unopened emails and thousands of emails in your inbox, I have hope for you.
Many people do one of two things with email.
1. “I don’t do email”
The problem with this is that email is an important means of communication practically. Email is the most common means of communication in the business space.
2. Stacking email
Many people who use email in the same way a lot of dads do dishes. “I will stack the dirty dishes neatly in the sink for you.” Stacking email in an inbox to deal with later is not only inefficient, it’s anxiety inducing. People who keep hundreds of unread emails and thousands of read emails composting in an inbox, hoping for a “to-do list” are asking for missed opportunities, dropped balls, and general anxiety.
What if, as a cross-cultural worker, you always had a timely response, you never dropped a communication ball, and there are no radio-waves of anxiety emanating from your email inbox?
The primary reason people struggle with email is because they don’t have a system.
Here’s how I coach my clients to process email:
1. Use the tools
Electronic tools are most effective when they build a sustainable ecosystem. Create a system for your email that takes away the anxiety and stress and makes things easier for you.
There are three kinds of tools I use for my email system which I couldn’t function without.
Not every email is created equal. I want to see and respond to an email from my dad (or my boss!) more than I want to know about the latest sale at REI. Find an automation tool that creates folders for your messages. Gmail does some of this. I use SaneBox, which is a service that automatically moves unimportant emails into separate folders, leaving you with only important items in your main inbox. It’s customizable and has a lot of options. I started using this service the day I almost stopped using email in Central Asia. It eliminated 2/3 of the email that was causing me stress.
Schedule email processing for twice per day. Snooze important emails to a specific day and time for processing. Gmail, Outlook, and many email client apps have this feature (I use Airmail for Mac with has this and many other useful features). This means you don’t have to store emails in your inbox so you don’t forget them – hoping they won’t get buried in an electronic avalanche. Use a snooze function to make specific messages appear in your inbox at the exact time you want to process the information.
One of the chief culprits for inbox overwhelm is trying to schedule meetings. The endless back and forth of finding mutually acceptable times is more cognitively demanding than you might think. Use a scheduling service (I like Calendly, but there are several other options). This creates a system potentially eliminating hundreds of unnecessary messages.
Use technology to simplify your life, rather than bring added stress!
Create systems to eliminate non-essential email.
Then move to the next step.
2. Implement a 5-minute rule.
When processing email, follow the five-minute rule. It’s simply this:
If you can complete a reply or a task in 5 minutes or fewer, do it now!
Don’t “add it to a list.”
Don’t leave the message in the inbox.
It’s possible to dash through a lot of email in a short amount of time when following this rule.
3. Decide (and you only have two choices)
With what’s left in your inbox, systematically move through one message at a time, asking these questions of each:
Is this worth my time this week?
It’s a simple, game-changing, yes/no question.
If your answer is “no” do one of three things:
- Delete it (or archive, if you prefer)
- Delay it (this is when you use the “snooze” feature in your email client!)
- Delegate it (If you work with a team, assign it to someone else)
If the answer is “yes” move to the second question.
What should I do about this?
Think in terms of action.
If the content is information that you can’t do anything about, archive it. If it’s important material, pull it out of your inbox and put it into a trusted system.
For every actionable message, make four to-to lists with four kinds of tasks.
4. Make four lists
If you need to do something about it, and it will take longer than 5 minutes, make four lists.
Breakdowns: A list of projects that need a plan. I need to break down things on this list into smaller, actionable steps or create a project plan.
Brainstorms: These are things that need more thought and clarity. You might need to bring a team on board to brainstorm what should happen and how to move forward.
Busywork: Replies and single-action tasks you just need to do. Schedule a block of time to do all single-action and “5-minute rule” tasks.
Bulldozers: Cognitively demanding tasks that need uninterrupted deep work.
With this system and an hour or two of time, you can clear your inbox and have the peace of mind, knowing there is nothing hiding in that pile of messages, waiting to surprise you.
We cannot eliminate email from our lives. But it’s possible to create a system to keep you from ever going back to email purgatory again!
What are your communication struggles?
What are the tools you use to overcome them?
Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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