After a really frustrating morning with email, here are my two mistakes


Here’s a snapshot of what turned out to be a really frustrating morning.

At the beginning, I had around eight emails to answer.

Each one I answered generated a reply.  So did the next wave of replies I sent.

I also had around five I needed to send. Same pattern.

And – spoiler alert – some of those emails had more than one recipient, which meant there were multiple replies, overlapping, not always having read each other…

By the end of the morning I was frazzled.

And I still had around eight emails to answer.

Now there is a ton of advice out there on how to process emails and get them out of your system; just to add, if isn’t obvious, that I like the ‘inbox zero’ approach, ideally once a day. And I really, really hate using the inbox as a do-list. 

This isn’t a piece on how to handle emails.

It’s on how to handle the frazzle. And the two basic mistakes I’d made

I’d forgotten to chunk my time

clock-1031503_1280I’d sat at my desk, inbox open, watching stuff fly in, and ping’ing back a reply.  Honestly, you’d think I’d know better by now.

Obviously, I turn notifications off, on everything.  Obviously, I chuck my phone on a  table out of reach when Im trying to study or think.

But there I was, with my inbox like a tube of Pringles, encouraging me to eat just one more, just one more (Note: other potato-and-salt-and-other-gunk stuff snacks are available).

Forget how Pringles work on your gut (you really don’t want to know), and consider how emails work on your brain. Every time you get an email – dopamine reward! Somebody likes you!  Every time you send an email – dopamine reward!  You’ve done stuff!  

But consider the cost – the micro cost – of all those little decisions you make in writing an email. When I was going through chemotherapy, I became acutely aware of how much energy an email saps.  Each of these steps tires you, at a tiny level:

  • Open the email
  • Read the email
  • Think about the email
  • Decide what to write in your reply
  • Write your reply
  • Re-read and edit your reply
  • Send

The overall experience is what’s called ‘decision fatigue’, which means that at the end of a morning of processing such stuff you become careless or unwise in what you send. Decision fatigue is what sets in after an hour in a supermarket.  It’s why they put the chocolate by the queues at the end, because if they put them by the door when you came in, you’d refuse them and buy an apple instead.  But a full trolley later, you crave a sugar rush and a reward for all that work.

You can spot that fatigue in your reaction when you see an email plop in the inbox. You sigh. Another one.

The remedy is to chunk your time.  Don’t leave the email open while you do something else (if you want to know why, read Deep Work, by Cal Newport. Spoiler alert – it kills both your focus and your productivity). Give yourself a sensible amount of time, maybe an hour, set a timer and roll your sleeves up.  At the end, close it down and do something else for a while.

I’d forgotten to choose my time

clock-1031503_1280We tend to be  better at different tasks at different times of day. By and large, creative stuff works well in the mornings.  For me, an hour of sermon prep in the morning is worth three in the afternoon. Once I’ve done that, I can handle emails for a bit, with focus and detail.  But if I switch those round, I tend to be about as good on the emails, but less good on the creative.  Why?  It must be because being creative requires you to be focussed, and emails make me look all over the horizon, evoking constant ‘fight or flight’ reactions.

Just me? thought not.

Likewise people.  Now, people are part of the core business of ministry, and so it is both our duty and our joy to do it.  And, they can tuck in any part of the day, really.

But they’re not interchangeable.  Again, I can see people in the morning as well as in the afternoon, but I won’t do my sermon prep as well in the afternoon as I do in the morning.  It’s just the way I’m wired.

So with emails.

There are no times when I’m best at emails, but there are times when I’m better, and there are times when I’m worse.  Evenings is a classic example.  When I’m tired, is another.  Or feeling grumpy.  Or trying to avoid someone.

The common element, is when my capacity for self-control is running lower.  That’s when I lose the ability to think so clearly, to exercise the will to switch off, to edit my reply for the fourth time so it really doesn’t give offence.

What does have to do with discipleship?

Our bodies, including our brains, burn energy.  Our bodies, including our brains, need rest.  Our bodies, including our brains, are physical realities, subject to physical laws.  

So, therefore, it was of the incarnate Jesus.  We know he rested as well as worked.  He ate, and he fasted.  He engaged, and he withdrew. Presumably, therefore, he was aware of his physical realities, and responded to them to make the best use of himself.

Hunger, sleeplessness, prison and beatings, come into the picture too, of course, for Jesus and his followers.  Take that as read. But they are involuntary, unchosen realities.  Normally, we eat, drink, work, rest, as we need.

But with email, we’re always on, never resting, thinking, praying or eating with our friends.  It’s constantly seeking to grab our attention (“Me, me, me!”) but never satisfied with what it’s just had. It depletes us but never restores us.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  There’s a time – a right and good time – to handle your email.  Choose it well, use it well, and then go and do something else instead.

Process question

When are you at your best for handling emails?  How can you choose and chunk your time more wisely?

2 comments on “After a really frustrating morning with email, here are my two mistakes”

  1. Likewise I try (and more regularly fail) to leave replying to email until later in the day.

    When I’m replying to a very recently arrived email, I tend to use a “send later” feature now found in more advanced email clients to delay it going out. That means people don’t get to expect a fast response, even if occasionally I can. The exception is with people I know are waiting on info or a decision from me (church staff) as it’s unhelpful to delay them.

    You mention the frazzling that can happen in complicated and overlapping email chains. I’d love to hear experience of people using team communications platforms such as Slack or Basecamp for use in a church setting. Does it help with this problem, or does it just create new problems?

    1. Good question – we’ve just had a church weekend a way with the staff team in contact via WhatsApp. Useful for a short term focussed task where we needed to fly in formation, but I don’t think we want or need to work like that normally.

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