Have you ever felt like all you do is go from one emergency to the next? Do you feel constantly stressed because you are consistently putting out fires? Do you find yourself scanning your inbox because you just know that another one is about to pop up somewhere? If so, you’re not alone.
We’ve all been there at some point. Sadly, some people never escape this feeling of constantly going from thing to thing as they come up, which we like to call “living life out of your inbox.” As things come in, you immediately deal with them in an effort to stay ahead of things. Many people live this way because it doesn’t require you to plan ahead, but this naturally encourages what David Allen calls “emergency scan modality” and can quickly consume your entire day with trivial things. In this post, we’ll show you how you can overcome the feeling of living out of your inbox by making a mind shift change to recognize how urgent things really are and reclaim the time and mental space to focus on what is really important.
Recognizing the Problem
Living life out of your inbox like this is an epidemic in today’s society, and checking email is one of the most common symptoms. According to the Huffington Post in a survey done last year, the average US worker spends 6.3 hours per DAY dealing with email. 3.1 hours are work-related, and 3.2 hours are personal. 82% of people surveyed admitted they checked personal email at work and work email at home. The majority were looking for a way to break that cycle even though they couldn’t see how it was possible.
The reason people live their life out of their inbox like this is that it’s not inherently bad. There is some value associated with checking your email. Maybe you finally got that response you’ve been waiting for from your coworker so you move forward with the project but that doesn’t mean it’s the best use of your time. This is what is known as the “any benefit approach” where we stick with things that give us any benefit instead of seeking out the things that give us the greatest benefit. The temporary relief of putting out a fire does have some benefit, but the bigger benefit would be focusing on and addressing the root of the problem (and the problem is, we’re just too busy living like a firefighter to even consider if there is a better way).
Focusing is Easier Said Than Done
Focusing on what is really important seems easy enough, but if you’re not careful, you can find yourself simply reacting to what other people say is important. This is especially true with email, which is a one-sided communication medium at the moment that you are going through your inbox. You can easily fall into the trap of allowing other people to define your priorities for you and living your day out of your inbox.
Living out of your inbox is easier for many people because they don’t have to plan ahead. They can just run their day dictated by whatever happens to come in from their boss or coworkers. But if you’re looking for a way to escape living out of your inbox, a great matrix for defining what is important and what isn’t is Stephen Covey’s quadrant system. This is commonly called the “Eisenhower box,” after president Dwight Eisenhower who once said that “what is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” This is what the Eisenhower Box looks like:
The Eisenhower Box is divided into four quadrants. Let’s take a look at these one at a time.
Things that are both important and urgent – These are things that you should “do.” These are things that are both very time sensitive and will have a significant impact on your overall happiness and goal achievement so you should do them as soon as possible. Some examples of things that are both important and urgent are things like paying your taxes, your wife going into labor, or a deadline approaching for a big project. Very few emails ever truly fall into this category.
Things that are important but not urgent – These are the things that you should “decide” when to do. These things can easily be neglected if you simply respond to the most pressing demand for your time and attention. These are things that have a significant impact on your overall happiness and goal achievement but don’t need to be done immediately. Some examples of things that are important but not urgent are things like exercise, spending time with your family, and taking the time to plan your week. Important emails might occasionally fall into this category.
Things that are urgent but not important – These are things that you should “delegate” to someone else if possible since it’s not that important if you actually do the task. These are things that are time sensitive, but really don’t make that big an impact on your overall happiness or goal achievement (you shouldn’t worry too much about getting these things done as soon as possible). Some examples of things that are urgent but not important are things like phone calls and text messages. Most of the email you receive will fall into this category.
Things that are neither urgent or important – These are things that really don’t matter when you do them or even if you do them at all and you should “delete” as many of these time-wasting tasks as you can. Some examples of things that are neither urgent or important are checking your social media (most of the time), watching tv, and sorting through junk mail.
As we mentioned earlier, it’s easy to find yourself living out of your inbox and doing things all day that are urgent but really aren’t that important. They might add some value, but they are probably not the most important things you should be focusing on. That is because the default mode of operation is to live on the left side of this quadrant, responding to the latest fire you need to put out. This is what we call the tyranny of the urgent.
Escaping the tyranny of the urgent can be difficult, especially if you’re not intentional about prioritizing the things that are truly important. Since email is essentially a todo list that other people can write on and they all think that their requests for your time are both urgent and important, you need to change your mindset so that you can correctly classify email as it comes into your inbox. Only when you can define for yourself what is really urgent and what isn’t will you be able to carve out the time for the things that are really important.
How to Escape Your Inbox, One Step at a Time
Chances are you have a few things on your task list and few emails in your inbox that really aren’t that important. To help you decide what’s most important, do this exercise:
First, identify a big goal that you have and write it at the top of a piece of paper. It could be any personal or professional goal, just make sure that is the most important thing to you at this moment. For example, my most important project might be finishing the Escape Your Email video course. This is what we are going to weigh other inputs against.
Next, draw an Eisenhower box and label the axis. Now, take a sample of the emails in your inbox (say the first 15 messages or so) and identify which quadrant that email actually belongs in. For example, getting back to Thanh about the marketing plan for the video course is important but not urgent, but the Black Friday appliance sale is urgent but not important.
Be honest with yourself and don’t talk yourself into making things more important than they really are, weighing them against the important project that you wrote down at the beginning. What you will see is that many of the emails we receive are either not as important or not as urgent as we think they are. Very few emails are really urgent and important as email is not a great medium for getting a hold of someone immediately when action is required.
Understanding what you can’t and shouldn’t be doing is key to overcoming living out of your inbox and escaping the tyranny of the urgent. Once you complete this exercise and start to get used to filtering emails you receive through the proper lens, you’ll be much better equipped to decide what you should be really be focusing on. When you can identify when things are not actually urgent, you won’t feel stressed by the impulsive desire to respond right away.
More Email Tips
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