Overcoming the Tyranny of Email

Every time I facilitate a manager development course, the topic of email arises along with an expression of hopelessness – people are suffering from the tyranny of email. They often feel out of control, overwhelmed by the volume of email and stressed by the “implied” deadlines involved. People sometimes perceive their inbox as a “ticking timebomb” if they don’t immediately process email as it arrives.

The emotional burden of email

Our communication patterns and related expectations have accelerated since the days of “slow mail” – the hand-written letter. The expectations of a timely response have grown with the increased speed of communication – how often are you asked, “I just sent you an email (or text message), didn’t you receive it?” The expectation of a speedy response is implied along with the underlying assumption that their communication is the only thing you have to deal with during the day.

Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog and related eBooks, found that reading his email before he got out of bed was actually a procrastination habit – putting off getting out of bed and also delaying doing something productive like researching, writing or planning his day. I have found that if I focus on writing a blog post before I read my email, I am much more productive and less distracted. I can relegate email to the role of a secondary, rather than primary, priority.

Recent research has shown that if you access your phone first thing in the morning (to check emails, texts and Instagram notifications), you are limiting your productivity and capacity for creative problem solving, adding stress to your life and making yourself unhappy.

The tyranny of email – capturing your attention

Besides adding to your stress, the volume of email and its implied deadlines serve to capture your attention and distract you from more important things that you are doing or have to do. Email is a form of disruptive technology more often driven by people who are actively trying to gain your attention to pursue their own ends. If you let it, email takes over your life, determines your priorities and undermines your capacity to focus.

Frequent checking of email takes you off-task and reduces your productivity because you have to take time to reset your brain when you return to your task at hand. Research has found that people who check their email only three times a day (instead of the average of 15 times per day) experience less stress, are more productive and achieve a greater sense of satisfaction during the day because they are better able to accomplish desired results.

How often do you find yourself following a “link-chain” in an email and going completely off-task to explore the latest news, social media post or “lifestyle” comment? Some people are driven by the desire for the latest news and pursuit of this desire consumes time and energy. If you find that you have no surplus in your life, you might find that your email-reading habits consume much of the space in your life.

A mindful way to handle email

Leo Babauta provides an approach to handling email which he calls, A Mindful Guide to Email in 20 Minutes a Day. The essence of his approach is to avoid starting the day reading email, allocate 20 minutes for reading email, have a system for sorting through your daily inbox, take action appropriately and reduce your inbox flow by unsubscribing from electronic newsletters, notifications, etc.

His system identifies three kinds of action that you can take:

  1. delete (or store in a folder for future reference if you are going to use it later)
  2. action in two minutes (brief responses where required)
  3. add to your to-do list (if you need to take action that will be longer than 2 minutes).

One of the problems with email is that we become indecisive and put off action on individual items, only to return later and repeat the process – this is a waste of time and a major source of distraction. Having a clear system enables you to regain control from the tyranny of email, so that you are in the “driver’s seat”.

Leo’s final piece of advice is to treat the process of email as a mindful endeavour – undertaken consciously, thoughtfully, with compassion and kindness. It is important to realise that email amplifies the message because of the proximity of the screen – so, for instance, writing in all capitals is effectively experienced as shouting. Mindfulness, too, is developed if we express gratitude for the opportunity that email provides, especially being able to connect with others and maintain valuable relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness by treating email as a conscious, mindful endeavour undertaken in a systematic (rather than chaotic) way, we learn to overcome the tyranny of email, regain control over our priorities and improve our productivity.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Our Thoughts Can Affect Our Performance

In the previous post, I discussed how nervousness can affect your mind and body and impact your performance.  I also looked at two strategies – naming your feelings and accessing your success anchor – to gain control over your nervousness.  In this post, I want to focus on how our thoughts can affect our performance.

Our negative thoughts

When we are nervous or anxious about our performance before some public activity, our minds tend to race, and we lose control over our thinking. We can be bombarded with a whole host of negative thoughts – “What if I forget what I was going to say?”, “What will people think of me?”, “How will I ever recover if I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues?”,  “Will I cope if they reject me?”, or “What if I do not meet their expectations?”

These negative thoughts often lead to procrastination.  I have found many times that people fail to start something because of these kinds of negative thoughts.  Sometimes, these disabling thoughts are not at a conscious level – they may just manifest as nervousness or anxiety.  This is where an exercise to name your feelings and the thoughts that create them can be very helpful.

Reframing with positive thoughts

I was recently following up people by phone who had participated in one of my courses – effectively a coaching session.  I was wondering what was causing me to procrastinate.  I have facilitated hundreds of courses and the people I was ringing were participants on my most recent course and yet I was nervous about the phone activity.  I started to follow the suggested step of naming my emotions and identifying the thoughts that gave rise to them.  The thoughts predominantly related to, “Would I live up to their expectations?”, and “Could I actually provide them with some help with their practice or project?”.  Sometimes, our doubts are not rational, but they persist.

Getting in touch with my feelings and negative thoughts enabled me to move on and actually conduct the phone coaching discussions.  What I found was that by controlling my negative thoughts through mindfulness, I was able to change my mindset and view the phone coaching differently.  I came to appreciate the very positive aspects of this exercise and this helped me to reframe the activity as relationship building.  I found that the participants were actually putting into practice in their workplaces the skills we covered in the course and they were having a positive impact on their workplace and the people in their team (intrinsically rewarding feedback!).

I came to the realisation yet again (somewhat blocked by my current anxiety), that my major role was to listen and ask questions for clarification and understanding (mine and theirs).  The experience then was very reaffirming.  Reframing the activity in positive terms, rather than focusing on possible (but not probable) negative outcomes, freed me up to perform better in the coaching interviews.  However, I have a long way to go to be free of “ego” concerns.

Becoming free of ego concerns

When we revisit our concerns or negative thoughts, we often have in advance of some public activity, we begin to realise how much “ego” is involved.  We are concerned about our image – how we will be viewed or assessed, what impact our performance will have on us or our future, what impression we will make or how embarrassed will we be if we “fail”.

These issues constitute ego concerns.  Tom Cronin (The Stillness Project) in his blog post, How to Find the Confidence to Speak in Front of 300 People, suggests that controlling your ego is a key aspect of gaining that confidence.  The less ego plays in determining how you feel about your forthcoming performance, the better you are able to just be present and appreciate the moment. Your presence and sense of calm can be very effective in helping you access your creative abilities and best performance.  He recommends daily meditation as a way to dissolve the ego and gain peaceful presence, no matter what we are doing:

… meditation plays a HUGE role. In the stillness of meditation we connect with that unbounded state of peaceful presence, beyond the limits of the ego. The work is to put aside time to meditate, and then outside of meditation, to observe the difference between that which is ego and that which is not. 

To remove all ego from our thoughts and activities requires a very advanced state of mindfulness.  As Tom indicates, this is a lifetime pursuit, because ego often gets in the road of our performance and our ability to have a positive impact.  However, we cannot wait until we are cleansed of all ego before we perform.

I have successfully addressed 1,800 people at a World Congress in Cartagena, Colombia in South America.  The topic was on action learning and I was doing the opening address as President of the Action Learning and Action Research Association.  My luggage had not arrived by the start of the Congress, so I had to present in my jeans that I wore on the flight over and a colourful Cartegena t-shirt I bought in the street outside the Congress.

I had to let go of any ego concerns about my standard of dress (the other dignitaries were in suits) if I was to actually get up on the stage.  I think this need and the casualness of my dress helped me in my address – it was particularly well received by the Colombians who were present amongst the representatives from 61 countries.  I certainly had ego concerns but the momentousness of the occasion and the potential contribution of the Congress to global cooperation, helped me to get through and manage my nerves.  But you can see I still have ego concerns that are alive and active when I undertake a relatively simple phone coaching activity (as described above) – lots more meditation to do!!

As we grow in mindfulness, we can clear anticipatory, negative thoughts about our performance, identify and control our emotions and progressively remove our ego concerns.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.