Two people stand on the beach. Before them is a volleyball and a net. One person serves, the other returns. Back and forth they go until a point is scored. In a way, email is very similar. You send an email and wait for a response. You get a response and send one in reply. Back and forth you go until the conversation reaches a conclusion.
Before I took my blog, QuickBooost, full-time, I worked for a company that relied heavily on email. It’s a position that you may just find yourself in as well. You have your email open all day. Whenever a new message arrives, you are immediately made aware of it.
Whatever task you were working on is gone. Your attention is on that email. It could just as well be Slack, text, or any of the other ways someone could get in touch with you though. With each new message received, you are pulled away from the important thing(s) you’re working on.
The current system
Most communications are rarely important in the moment. What’s really happening is someone, somewhere, has hit the ball onto your side of the court. They’ve removed a responsibility from their plate and have added it to yours (we’re doing analogies on top of analogies right now!).
They’ve put the onus on you. And in playing the game, you drop whatever it is you’re doing and hit the ball right back over the net. Put another way, you’ve taken one thing off your plate and have added it to theirs. And in doing so, you too are part of the problem.
Not only that, but when everyone acts in this manner, there’s no possible way to catch up. With each email you send, you get one in return. Ultimately, your day is one where you live in the inbox and get nothing of real value done. Neither does anyone else.
The reason for 4 PM
Instead of dealing with the volley-madness, I respond to all non-urgent communications each afternoon. Normally right around 4 PM. Furthermore, I respond to everything in bulk. Meaning, at 4 PM, I sit down and respond to all texts, emails, Slacks, and the rest. All at once. And then, I’m done for the day.
I may respond to friends and family later in the evening, but as far as official business messages go, I stick to 4 PM. Anything that comes in once I’m done gets responded to the next day. (I try to, and generally do, respond to everyone within a 24-hour window.)
Most people today don’t expect a quick response, particularly with email, so there are no issues on that front. Additionally, responding in bulk allows me to spend the rest of my time on the important things – like writing this to you. Oh and it stops the endless back and forth that communicating can quickly become.
Having set response times
Responding only once a day may not be possible for you right now. But there are ways to stop the constant volleying and instead focus on what needs to get done. For instance, my friend Rachel has an auto-responder go out each time she receives an email.
It basically says: I got your email and will respond at either 11 AM or 2 PM. With this approach, you can focus on your work, let the inquirer know you got their message, and, in the case of Rachel, use it to showcase just how productive and time-oriented you are.
Having set response times is something you can try as well. For instance, before landing on my current 4 PM time, I had three times throughout the day that I would respond. Once in the morning before starting my work, once around lunch, and once before wrapping up my day.
Why I went from three to one
There were a couple reasons why I inevitably changed from responding three times per day to just once:
- At three times per day, I felt like I was constantly responding and never doing anything of actual value;
- I really didn’t have enough incoming communications to warrant that great of frequency.
In the case of the former, I was using all my writing energy on email instead of on my articles. It felt misaligned. In the case of the latter, three times per day was excessive. And in classic Parkinson’s law, I was giving more time to it than it actually needed.
In other words, I was spending two-ish hours each day on communications when I could likely get them done in less than one. Not only that, but those communications were often draining and distracting, thus making my actual work harder than it needed to be.
When you need to make a change
Now, you don’t necessarily need to respond to everything at once. Similarly, you don’t need to respond only in the afternoon or even have a set time to respond at all. What you do need though is to become aware of what all that messaging is doing to you.
- If you find it hard to get your work done because you’re so distracted,
- Or if you’re so tired from all the messages that you can’t focus on what matters,
- Or if you spend more time responding than actually creating value, a change is needed.
What change is best? It’s up to you. I’ve mentioned what works for me, but that may not necessarily work for you. Instead, I encourage you to experiment. Test out different times, frequencies, even platforms.
Moving forward with 4 PM
For the most part, I’m not on any social media platforms. In doing this, I remove several channels that I can be contacted on, thus in turn simplifying the places I need to check and respond to. With fewer mediums for communication, the time required and expected format response is streamlined as well.
I don’t need to worry about Slack protocol versus Twitter DM’s versus email. I have my three or four platforms and that’s it. Put another way, I have:
- Minimized the ways I can be reached;
- Reduced the amount of time I spend responding;
- And have maximized my responses by doing them all at once as opposed to sporadically throughout the day.
- Oh, and I have all my notifications turned off too so I don’t get distracted while working.
In doing so, I have a system that allows me to respond to everyone in a prompt manner while ensuring I get my most important work done first. So give it a shot. Try out different ways of reducing the noise and get what matters most done.
I’ll see you at 4 PM.