Email – Productivity Killer or Killer App?

process that emailEmail is often the #1 focus for advice on how to be more productive. Tactics like “don’t process email first thing” or “batch your email twice a day” are commonplace on the web.

Paul Graham wrote the seminal article Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule back in 2009 where he discussed why meetings destroy productivity for makers since it takes so long for a maker to achieve the productive “flow” state. The concept behind this is sound and why I think so many give the email advice they do.

Maker or Manager Email?

However, the advice often doesn’t distinguish between makers and managers. Ignoring your email (or at least batching it) is sound advice for makers, but it is suicide for managers.

My job as a manager is communication. How can I do my job well if I ignore one of the primary modes of communication? That is like telling a salesperson to ignore the phone.

Now I will be the first to admit that there is lots of non-productive email so the trick is not to ignore all your email, but to triage it. There are several systems out there such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done which you can use for the actual tactics, but the point is you need to have some kind of system.

My morning routine is in direct opposition to most email advice. I spend the first hour or 2 of every day responding to email. Why? Because other people are waiting on decisions or information that I provide. Without my input they can’t proceed and that impedes their productivity and my goal it to get them working again as soon as possible.

Now I know some of you are thinking that I shouldn’t be the bottleneck or that I am micromanaging my team. I will just just point out that my team members have lots of latitude to make decisions, but occasionally my input is needed. This probably represents 1% of my emails.

The next bulk of the emails (40-50%) are informational so that I know how the business/project is going. These emails may spawn other emails as I keep various stakeholders in the loop.

Then there is a small number of “educational” emails which are typically mailing lists I’ve subscribed to. These get processed last and are typically skimmed. If there is something interesting or worth more attention I flag them and move on.

The rest of it is junk and I just delete it.

Does this process burn up my best and most productive hours of the day? Nope, because I’m not a maker.

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