Bar News - November 9, 2007
Work-Life Balance: If E-mail Is a Hammer, Do You Feel Like a Nail?
By: Betsy Black
Remember futurist Alvin Toffler’s book, The Third Wave? Written in 1991, it portends the rise of the information age, following the agricultural and industrial ages, and depicts widespread use of computers by people working out of “electronic offices” (i.e. their homes). I distinctly remember the book’s promise, perhaps better termed a hope, that the rise of the electronic age would produce a more efficient, saner economy that would enable people to work less.
Obviously, this hasn’t happened, and statistics tell us that most people in the U.S. now work more than they did 20 years ago. But the prediction about the widespread use of computers has certainly come true; today most people live intimately with computers, some would say chained to them, day and night – and a part of this new virtual world is e-mail, the subject of this article.
Have you ever wondered whether there might be a better way to handle your e- mail? This form of communication can be a cause for concern, because unless managed well, it can lead to sheer information overload; it has the negative ability to create frustration and to catapult people into reactive behavior. Recent newspaper accounts reveal overwhelmed executives doing a clean sweep, just dumping their hundreds or thousands of e-mails into the trash bin and sending mass e-mails to their contacts telling them what they have done.
That’s how desperate some people can become while trying to manage the ceaseless incoming tide of e-mail. A quick assessment of your own e-mail situation may help clarify problems before they become unmanageable:
- Do you have a system for dealing with your e-mail?
- Are you caught up on your e-mail?
- Does the previous question make you laugh?
- If e-mail is a hammer, do you feel like a nail?
Think about a hammer. A carpenter carries a hammer in a tool belt until it’s time to use it. Then s/he grabs the tool, uses it and puts it back into the tool belt until next time. In between times, the hammer rests quietly, and provides no distraction or distress.
To manage e-mail sanely, wisely and most productively, seek ways to handle it like a hammer, to be proactive rather than reactive.
E-mail is a wonderful tool. It allows us to work, communicate and collaborate whenever and wherever we choose. It enables us to craft careful, thoughtful responses. But it can also be a burden, making us feel we will never, ever catch up. It can contribute to fragmented thinking rather than helping us focus on what is most important in getting our work done.
That’s the bad news, but relax, hold on, help is on the way. The good news is that we can manage e-mail more effectively, because it is a tool, and we can choose how we use that tool. Here are a couple of ideas that have worked for others and may work for you, too.
First, think about how you start your day. If you, like many people, are likely to go right to the computer and check e-mail before beginning any other work, take some time to analyze whether this is your most prudent course of action. Checking e-mail may serve as a delaying tactic for not dealing with more important matters first. E-mail is seductive; there’s always something in the inbox.
Second, organize your e-mail as it arrives. Don’t fall into the trap of always trying to respond immediately. All messages do not have equal value. For example, you can set up sub-files in your inbox organized by time (deal with today, this week, this month) or topics (names of clients or cases). The messages will still be in your inbox, but will have been sorted for more thoughtful treatment later.
Third, limit the number of times you check e-mail per day. Set guidelines for yourself and for your clients about when you’ll respond to messages. Will you respond on nights and weekends on a routine basis? Or at some other time? Budget the time to respond to e-mail as you do for other matters—and include time to clean up any “dangling” e-mails.
You may be thinking the following: “That will never work…”, “I have to respond to emails immediately…”, “People expect to hear back from me…”, “It’s poor customer service to keep people waiting…”, “They will find someone else to help them…” “The computer beeps and I cannot resist opening the message.”
But remember, a tool should work for you, rather than serve as an annoyance or distraction. Let responding to and crafting e-mail messages be tasks unto themselves, perhaps entirely separate from the task of reading in-coming mail. You decide the time and place for each task. Thus e-mail becomes a discrete task with a discrete time, rather than a distraction from something else you need to be doing.
The benefits of concentrated e-mail tasks (scheduled by you) include an increased ability to focus, fewer distractions, a zeroing-in on what is most important, a greater ability to keep up with e-mail (ironically enough), and last but not least, greater peace of mind.
There are many tips and tricks to managing this modern phenomenon. The key is to find and use the ones that work for you. While e-mail may be a hammer, you need not be a nail.
Betsy Black, J.D., A.C.C., is an accredited life coach who specializes in working with lawyers seeking greater satisfaction in their work and personal lives. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 603-228-6195.
Members may also find further work/life balance resources and Betsy Black’s previous articles by logging onto the NHBA Web site. Click For Members, then Law Practice Management Tools, then Quality of Life or follow this link: http://www.nhbar.org/for-members/worklifebalance.asp