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16 Nov

How often should you check your e-mail?

Datum: 2011-11-16 11:00

A ques­tion I fre­quent­ly get when I am out lec­tur­ing is how often you should go through your e‑mail. My guess is that what makes this such a com­mon ques­tion is that peo­ple are curi­ous of what the opti­mal fre­quen­cy is, objec­tive­ly speaking. 

Some­times the per­son pos­ing this ques­tion also express­es a sus­pi­cion of that there is a com­mon gen­er­al expec­ta­tion of how quick­ly you should reply to e‑mails you receive and how far behind” it is OK to fall in your correspondences. 

Not so bad

I believe that e‑mailing is becom­ing an increas­ing­ly impor­tant and cen­tral tool to most of us. 

And to be frank, it has its mer­its. You can con­vey your mes­sage to some­one even if the per­son in ques­tion is nei­ther phys­i­cal­ly present nor reach­able by phone. 

You can send large quan­ti­ties of infor­ma­tion fast and you get a writ­ten tran­script of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion auto­mat­i­cal­ly, as opposed to when dis­cussing a mat­ter over the phone. 

Hur­ry-scur­ry! (Or per­haps not?)

But the e‑mail also appears to be stress­ful for many peo­ple. If we were free from oblig­a­tions con­cern­ing the e‑mails we receive, we wouldn’t have any prob­lems, but as we are implic­it­ly expect­ed to reply to them, we tend to get stressed when the num­ber of unread e‑mails is increas­ing faster than we are able to read and deal with them. 

So how often is often enough when it comes to emp­ty­ing the e‑mail inbox and how quick­ly must we reply?

The answer is straight-for­ward and ambigu­ous simul­ta­ne­ous­ly: There is no uni­ver­sal truth, it depends. 

What does it depend on?

It depends on:

  • What your cor­po­rate cul­ture is. How fast do your col­leagues reply to e‑mails? Do you have some form of explic­it pol­i­cy con­cern­ing how avail­able by e‑mail you are sup­posed to be? In the com­pa­nies and busi­ness­es I meet in my work, the cul­ture and norms regard­ing e‑mailing dif­fer. In some com­pa­nies you have to” answer with­in an hour, while oth­ers are not in the same hurry.
  • How quick­ly you have replied in the past. The peo­ple you have cor­re­spon­dence with by e‑mail tend to quick­ly get used to how fre­quent­ly you have replied in past com­mu­ni­ca­tion. If you reply almost instant­ly for a while and then sud­den­ly have a few days off, the per­son you are cor­re­spond­ing with might call you to ask Where did you go? Did you get my e‑mail? Did you read it?”. If you tend to reply swift­ly, make sure to cre­ate an out-of-office-mes­sage which spec­i­fies when you will be unavail­able or away on a busi­ness-trip (and there­by unable to attend to your e‑mails).
  • Your role in the com­pa­ny. If you are respon­si­ble for a large quan­ti­ty of the cus­tomer con­tact, it is obvi­ous that the faster you reply to e‑mails, the bet­ter it is.
  • What your oth­er respon­si­bil­i­ties and assign­ments are. The only per­son able to make the cor­rect pri­or­i­ties amongst all the things you need to do is you since you are the only one with a com­plete overview of your sit­u­a­tion. If you have high pri­or­i­ty tasks which you need to work on with­out inter­rup­tions for a longer stretch of time, emp­ty your inbox less frequently.
  • Your val­ues and ambi­tions. If it is extra impor­tant to you to be avail­able by e‑mail and it har­mo­nizes with what you stand for, check and emp­ty your email at more fre­quent intervals.

Do this

  1. Since there are no rules or reg­u­la­tions regard­ing this mat­ter, try check­ing your account at dif­fer­ent inter­vals until you find one which suits you. I have clients who check their e‑mail twice a day (in the morn­ing and in the after­noon), oth­ers who check it once an hour, and those who prac­ti­cal­ly have the e‑mail win­dow open at all times.
  2. Define and aim for a spe­cif­ic time peri­od with­in which you will reply to the sender, if only with a Thank you for your e‑mail, I will look into it fur­ther when I have time lat­er this week”.
  3. Decide to stick to this e‑mailing pol­i­cy of yours through­out the rest of the week.
  4. Cre­ate a reminder in your to-do-list so that you on Fri­day after­noon eval­u­ate how you think stick­ing to the plan went.
  5. If you need to, adjust the pol­i­cy and try it again next week, after which you eval­u­ate it again.

It’s your call

If you decide how you want to han­dle your e‑mailing, you are no longer at a loss when try­ing to cope with the con­stant inflow of e‑mails. You have got­ten a han­dle on the sit­u­a­tion and start­ed defin­ing your unique way of working. 

If you haven’t already, try check­ing the inbox at low­er inter­vals, for instance every oth­er hour. When you do check your e‑mail, process the incom­ing e‑mails imme­di­ate­ly, that is, reply to those which need a quick and short reply, make to-do-tasks out of those which you don’t have time to deal with now and save those which you will need to keep. Make sure to throw away those which you no longer need. 

You will then be able to work with greater focus and con­cen­tra­tion on the tasks which have noth­ing to do with e‑mailing and the e‑mailing tool itself will be less asso­ci­at­ed with stress, ten­sion and frustration. 

What’s your way?

How often do you check your e‑mail? Do you have some kind of aim as to how quick­ly you will reply to the e‑mails you receive? If you suc­ceed in stick­ing to that time-frame, what would you say deter­mines your suc­cess? Leave a com­ment to let the world know your best tip!