How to Organize Your Inbox & Reduce Email Stress

The recipe for staying on top of your email is to be ruthless about what you send and receive, and to focus on how you process your inbox. Here are thirteen practices that may help you be in command of your inbox.

  1. How to Organize Your Inbox & Reduce Email Stress Turn off all new email notifications.
  2. Limit the number of times you access your email.
  3. Avoid checking your email during the first hour of the day. Work on something that requires your energy and focus.
  4. Don’t have your email software opened … keep it closed until it’s time to “do” email.
  5. When you “do” email, follow the “Process to Zero” technique. Merlin Mann, the productivity guru who popularized this technique, emphasized, “Never check your email without processing to zero.” Handle every email just once, and take one of these actions: delete or archive, delegate, respond, or defer.
  6. If you can process an incoming email in a minute or two, act on that email immediately, using the Two-Minute “Do-it-now” Rule.
  7. For any email that requires inputs or deliberation, start a reply email, and file it in the “Drafts” folder of your email software. Set aside a block of time to crank though all such draft emails.
  8. Tell people with whom you communicate the most that you intend to check your email intermittently. Encourage them to telephone or drop by if they need a quick response.
  9. If you’ve been dreading a large backlog of email, consider deleting everything that’s over three weeks old. If the contents of any of those emails were of any consequence, somebody would have appraised you of their substance.
  10. Reduce the number of emails you send. Decrease the number of people you carbon-copy on emails. Consider meetings or telephone calls for more effective interaction.
  11. Curb the number of email messages you receive. Ask to be removed from irrelevant newsgroups, and unsubscribe from marketing emails. Learn how to use the “filter” feature on your email software.
  12. Don’t get sucked into replying to every email. Reply only to those that are of relevant to your priorities. Let other communicators follow up with you if they need a reply.
  13. Empty your inbox by the end of the day and process every message.

Idea for Impact: Don’t let an overflowing inbox be a big distraction (read my article on the Zeigarnik Effect.)

Office Chitchat Isn’t Necessarily a Time Waster

When Employees are Happy, They Work Better

Office Chitchat Isn't Necessarily a Time Waster Managers who disapprove and clamp down on impromptu encounters that people have at their desks, in the hallways, by the elevators, in the lunchroom, or by the water coolers can create a work environment that’s unpleasant, even repressive.

If truth be told, what may seems like idle chitchat actually forges links between people and encourages a culture of openness that can help people work toward common goals.

Informal, spontaneous conversations between coworkers, especially between colleagues from different departments, will not only give people a chance to know each other better, but also create a feeling of collaboration. The camaraderie that grows from employees sharing a little fun can go a long way toward fostering a feeling that they’re part of a team.

Chitchat is About Building Relationships

During those inconsequential “idle moments” of office conversations, important information is being exchanged. You’re learning much about others and offering details about yourself.

  • Whom can you trust? Who possesses strong convictions? Who has a broad experience or in-depth knowledge?
  • Who is a stimulating brainstormer? Who has the wherewithal for workarounds to problems?
  • Who can open doors for you? Who can facilitate otherwise hard-to-get connections?
  • Who can influence the leadership decisions? Who can evangelize your project to the right people? Who can bend the leadership’s ear? Who can be your cheerleader?
  • Who can lend a consoling ear in moments of problems or crisis? Who sees the bright side of problems?
  • Who can help you with questions on software, help you decide health insurance plans, or fix the printer?

Casual Conversations are About Networking and Leaving Positive Impressions

Small talk and casual conversations are an important element of collegial workplaces. People like talking about themselves, so if you can remember a nugget of information from the last time you met (kids, pets, and travels are great topics) bring it up.

To be respectful of others’ time, remember this two-minute rule: unless you’re discussing a topic of some importance, try to wrap up your small talk and casual chats in two minutes. Pay attention to your listener’s non-verbal cues and adjust the extent of your conversation. You can always arrange to convene later, “I’d love to hear more, but I’m in a rush. Why don’t I call you afterhours? How about we meet up for coffee this weekend?”

Nevertheless, don’t let chatter go too far and negatively impact your productivity or those of others. If you’re considered as too chatty, others may to resent bumping into you. If you tend to talk too much about yourself, you’ll be judged self-absorbed and interpersonally clueless.

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace Cordiality is a significant persuasive technique because people are much more likely to feel warmly towards those they like. They’ll do things for you if you earnestly show interest in them, chat with them on a regular basis, and make them feel good about themselves.

Colleagues who don’t chat can come across as arrogant or abrupt. Highly competent but unpopular professionals don’t thrive as well as their moderately competent, but popular counterparts.

Small Talk is a Critical Tool for Creating a Personal Bond with Your Coworkers

Even though an office is primarily a place of business, chatting about non-work topics and establishing rapport with coworkers is important. People who know and like each other tend to have each other’s backs and help out when necessary.

Even if, eventually, you’ll be accepted or rejected based on the more tangible aspects of your work, the fact of the matter is that these interpersonal impressions matter a great deal along the way and can even shape how people judge your more actual work.

Idea for Impact: Balance your dedication to your workload with a cooperative nature, you will gain needed allies to get things done and to help your career progression in the company.

The #1 Cost of Overwork is Personal Relationships

Is your career ruining your relationships?

There’s an old adage that no one ever said on his/her deathbed, “Gee, I wish I’d put more time in at the office.” Still, modern corporate life demands high-level performance for sustained periods.

Work has a tendency to capture people’s lives, leaving them out of focus and out of balance. Many people are working longer hours, often to the point of overlooking their individual needs: family, health, fitness, and home.

Is your career is ruining your relationships?

Personal relationships are often the first casualties of overwork. Hard workers are often in denial about the deterioration of their relationships. They unhesitatingly offer one of the many excuses that society seems to have sanctioned for overwork: “need to send the kids to private school,” “boss demands it,” “we’re experiencing quality problems and I’m making a good impression by firefighting”, “I’m keeping more patients alive,” and so forth. They are often the last to notice that their personal relationships are suffering.

As I mentioned in my article on willpower, many marriages go bad when stress at work is at its worst. This “muscle metaphor” for willpower, on a day-to-day basis, people use up all their willpower on the job; their home lives suffer because they give much to their work.

The time you do spend with your families can be more meaningful

'You Cant Predict a Hero' by Joseph Grano (ISBN 0470411678) Joe Grano, CEO of business consulting firm Centurion Holdings, used to work six days a week and almost every night. After years of slogging on Wall Street, his personal relationships worsened. Discussing how his ambition and long work hours led to his divorce (he had two daughters with his wife) in You Can’t Predict a Hero, Grano writes,

All successful, ambitious people are personally selfish to some degree. This goes beyond just the desire to pursue your self-interest in carving up the power and money in business. You can’t work the long hours that success requires and can’t set the individualistic priorities that ambition dictates without stealing somewhat from your loved ones. Some may think that a selfish perspective is rationalized with the rewards of money and prestige. Perhaps. But what if your loved ones don’t really care as much for those material rewards as you do? The truth is that successful people do what they do because they love doing it. The career is their passion, their mistress. It’s the adrenaline that drives their metabolism. The drive to spend those long hours working is as essential a part of their genetic makeup as is their DNA.

If you’re going to become a successful leader, you need to reconcile yourself to your own selfishness, not just the selfishness of others. Many of your peers will spend more time with their families than you do with yours. Finally, accept that the psychic rewards that come from your ambition and eventual success, while satisfying to you, may mean much less, if anything at all, to your loved ones. This is one of the prices of success. You’ll need to sacrifice on the amount of time you spend with your loved ones. Compensate by not sacrificing on the quality of that time.

Idea for Impact: Success doesn’t come without a price; neither does failure. With every choice comes consequences

What people really want and need is not work-life “balance,” but to live deeply satisfying lives both personally and professionally. The trick is a personal choice—to become more conscious of what and who matter most, and then to create the life you want.

Work-life balance isn’t so much about balance as it is about setting and living priorities. Remember, with every choice comes consequences.

How to Leave Work at Work

Employees are expected to be 100% on

Leave Work at Work There was once a time when people went to work, clocked in, put in their hours, clocked out, and forgot all about work until the next day. They fully disconnected from work and took real vacations. They maintained a healthy separation between their work time and their personal time.

Alas, those good times are long gone. Today’s challenging and competitive workplace demands of people not only their stamina to work exceptionally hard but also their hearts-and-minds’ commitment to bring creativity and insight to their efforts.

The pressure to constantly prove themselves is also exacerbated by how modern society judges people by their professional and financial successes—what they do, what they’ve accomplished, and how quickly they’ve accomplished it.

People are expected to be 100% on, take work home, and check in during their vacations. The upshot is that many people have real trouble turning work off. Work-related thoughts encroach upon their off-work hours. Some even lose sleep or wake up in the middle of the night thinking about their work.

Don’t bring work home in your head

  • Get a Life. Have a life to go to after you leave work. Develop a rich social life. Invest more time in your relationships. Get involved in absorbing activities, events, and hobbies. Schedule fun activities—you’ll have something to look forward to at the end of your workday.
  • Organize your workday. Structure your schedule to prevent hustling through work towards the end of the day. Be realistic about what you want to accomplish. In the middle of the afternoon, review the tasks ahead. Prioritize, reorganize, and pace yourself to wind down your workday. Do not answer phone calls or email during the last hour.
  • Organize and prioritize your next day’s schedule before you leave your office. Clean off your desk at the end of each day. This not only brings about a feeling of order and completion, but also helps you tune down and free up your mind.
  • Create a buffer between work and home. Stop by a gym, go shopping, or visit a friend. After you get home, change clothes, go for a walk, or do something relaxing to mark the transition and create a relaxed mindset for the evening.
  • Vent if necessary. Ask your loved ones to give you a few minutes to “let it out.” Expect them to just listen and be non-judgmental.
  • Don’t bring work home. Leave your briefcase, laptop, reports, and work-related reading at your desk.
  • Disconnect. Modern technology makes it easier for you to stay connected, but also makes it more difficult than ever to leave work at work. Leave your laptop at work. Turn off email and instant messaging on your phone. Resist the temptation to check your email on the family computer. Don’t visit the business center at the hotel when you’re on vacation.
  • Delegate and cross-train your staff to handle some of your responsibilities while you’re away.
  • Stop checking in with the office, especially when you’re on vacation. Your team will get along fine without you around. Crises will get managed, production will continue, customers will continue to be satisfied, and you’ll still have your job when you return. Let your team know how to find you in a dire emergency, but ask them not to bother you with the inconsequential stuff.

Idea for Impact: Don’t let work take over your life. Establish boundaries.

Don’t let your work run you. Don’t take work home literally (in your bag/briefcase or on your laptop) or figuratively (in your head). Enjoy your downtime.

Learn to disconnect from work unreservedly and spend time with your family. Play with the kids. Quality time with your loved ones is often more rewarding than your time at work. And perhaps by doing less work, you may end up loving your job more.

When Can Your Loved One Become an Important Client? [Work-Life Balance]

A 1997 advertisement for AT&T Wireless speaks to one of the greatest challenges faced by working parents: balancing the responsibilities of their jobs with those of their families. This is especially difficult for parents of children under age 18.

The desire to balance work and family life is often stronger for women who tend to take on more of the responsibilities of housework and childcare.

The AT&T Wireless advertisement features a professional woman, three daughters, and an adolescent babysitter. The mother rushes to get herself ready to go to the office while her three daughters are preparing their own breakfasts. Here’s a condensed version of their conversation:

Oldest daughter: “Mom, why do you always have to go to work?”

Mom: “It’s called food, video, skates…”

Oldest girl: “Can we go to the beach?”

Mom: “Not today honey, I’ve got a meeting with a very important client.”

Four-year old daughter (sadly): “Mom, when can I be a client?”

Mom (after a moment of contemplation): “You have five minutes to get ready for the beach or I’m going without you.”

At the beach, the mom’s cell phone rings. She answers it while her middle daughter shouts out, “Hey everybody, it’s time for the meeting!”

Idea for Impact: Make Your Loved Ones Your Most Important Clients

Striking that delicate work-life balance has puzzled people for ages. Personally, I’m not fond of the term ‘work-life balance’ because it offers a false dichotomy and implies that one’s personal and professional lives are separable. I prefer the term ‘work-life choices.’

It’s not so much about balance as it is about understanding what you value and setting the right priorities. Learning to balance the demands of conflicting priorities is not simply a thought exercise.

As I’ve detailed and exemplified in my three-part course on time management (time logging, time analysis, and time budgeting,) successfully organizing your life hinges on three key habits.

  1. Decide your life’s values. Decide on what truly matters to you and why.
  2. Rank those values according to their respective priority levels. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote in “Journals” (1838-1859,) “the cost of a thing it will be remembered as the amount of life it requires to be exchanged for it.” Each decision you make involves tradeoffs: choosing to do one thing entails not choosing to do some other thing.
  3. Allocate your time, money, and other limited resources on what matters most to you. As I wrote in The World’s Shortest Course on Time Management, discern the few things that you must do; then, focus on those and avoid the rest.

Postscript: Remarks on the AT&T Wireless Advertisement as A Great Example of Emotional Advertising

  • The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Field Guide for Effective Communication remarks, “Ads like this one show how the cell phone becomes a solution to a problem for working mothers. It captures an element that the cell phone is not only an instrument of freedom, not only an instrument of wealth creation, but also an instrument that makes it a little easier to have fairness in a world with a lot of stress.”
  • Robert Goldman, Professor of Sociology at Lewis & Clark College, notes, “A 1997 AT&T ad opens with scenes calculated to evoke the everydayness of home life, bringing forth the feel and texture of real—unreconstructed and un-retouched by the camera— interactions from that messy area we know as family life. The video of the ad exemplifies Hyperreal Encoding designed to make a case about the realness of the story being told, perhaps even making the case that it bears some resemblance to “your” own life. A woman scrambles to get herself ready to go to the office while her three girls are taking care of their own breakfasts. The oldest is preparing eggs for breakfast, while the baby plays with food containers from the open refrigerator door, and the four-year old disinterestedly spoons her cereal around her bowl, onto the table, and perhaps the floor.”

Thou Shall Attend the Office Holiday Party

Attend the office holiday party The office holiday party may seem like a mandatory celebration. Perhaps it is not in your tradition to celebrate Christmas. May be you are introversive, do not enjoy partying, or you feel uneasy about being around many unfamiliar people. You might even dread interacting with coworkers who you are not immensely fond of.

Despite your reluctance, the office holiday party comes with an implied obligation to attend it and enjoy it. Generally, companies consider the holiday party as a morale- and camaraderie-building occasion, not just as a mere ritual. Therefore, your management will take notice if you do not attend and may deem you negligent or arrogant if you ignore the office holiday party.

Unless you have a perfectly compelling reason — not an excuse — not to, you should partake in this celebration. It pays to attend the office holiday party, attempt to like it, exchange gifts, and make the most of it.

Great Opportunity to be “Seen”

As you move up the corporate ladder, one vital skill for your success is to be on familiar terms with the influential managers in your organization. The art of forming coalitions and winning the support is more about “who knows you” and “what they know about you” than about “who you know.” The most effective way of earning this recognition is showing up where the action is, “being there” and acting the part. For this very reason, the office holiday party is a great networking opportunity for you to introduce yourself to peers and management with whom you would not normally interact.

Office Holiday Party Etiquette

  • Attend and enjoy the office holiday party A word on propriety for the organizers: do not call the holiday party a “Christmas Party” and alienate employees who may not celebrate Christmas. The term “holiday party” is more inclusive.
  • Attend the party. Do not arrive too late or leave too early. You need not stay for the length of the party.
  • The holiday party is not a social occasion. Even if the party has a festive theme and setting, it is still in the professional context. Dress appropriately and conduct yourself professionally. Do not eat excessively or get drunk. Do not pass judgment, exchange inappropriate comments and jokes, or deride other guests.
  • Be Seen. Do not spend all your time hanging around familiar people. Mingle and introduce yourself to as many other guests as you can. Make sure you are “seen” by everybody important. Attempt to enjoy the party and make the most of it.
  • Bring a thoughtful and practical gift for the gift exchange ritual. Stay within the prescribed guidelines for buying gifts.
  • See my articles on how to start a conversation, how to help people pursue a conversation, how to introduce people to one another, and how to remember names.

The Winning Idea: Attend and enjoy the office party

Professional visibility and career success is often about fitting in and being visible to the influential managers and peers. Unless you have a perfectly compelling reason not to, you should partake in the office holiday party. Consider it a career advancement exercise, mingle with everybody, and enjoy it.

Telecommuting: Out of sight, Out of mind

Telecommuting: Out of sight = out of mind

Perils of telecommuting: Disconnectedness and diminished face time

For over four decades, employers have offered telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements to boost employee morale, promote work-life balance, and retain skilled workers. In spite of the ubiquity of electronic communication and accessibility to travel, a growing body of research has shown that it is significantly harder to build and maintain social relationships electronically than it is in person.

  • In the 1960s, Hewlett-Packard (HP) pioneered flexible work arrangements as part of its legendary “HP Way” culture. However, in year 2006, HP surprised employees and the HR industry by deciding to cutback telecommuting in one of its divisions to encourage employee interactivity, promote teamwork, and enable skilled workers to train the less-experienced employees.
  • A few years ago, an internal IBM study revealed that when teams went more than three days without a meeting, their happiness and productivity suffered. This promoted the “Making IBM Feel Small” initiative to promote face-to-face contact among its employees.

It’s important of show up and be “there”

Telecommuting - The importance of being 'there' Getting management to recognize you for your achievements and consider you for promotions and leadership positions has never been more challenging, especially at large companies. As I have mentioned in my previous articles, career success is no more about “who you know,” but rather about “who knows you” and what they know about you. Earning this recognition begins by showing up, “being there” and acting the part of a dedicated, enthusiastic employee.

Look, companies rarely promote employees who are not around to solve challenges and slug it out during tough times. For those of you who wish to graduate from individual contributor roles and get promoted to team-leader or management positions, telecommuting comes with a cost — reduced face time with your peers, management, and customers, and diminished opportunities to foster your management’s trust in your abilities. Therefore, telecommuting can be an impediment to climbing the corporate ladder.

Not Everybody Wishes to Climb the Corporate Ladder [Finding Work-Life Balance]

Climbing the Corporate Ladder You have probably met corporate people who are five to ten years from retirement and have remained in their bottom-of-the-ladder “contributor” roles (as engineers, programmers, accountants, salespersons, etc.) for decades. Don’t they typically report to managers 10 to 15 years their juniors? Ever wonder why they never assumed managerial or leadership roles? Are they simply incompetent or unenthusiastic? Enquire around and you may be surprised to learn that they may have perhaps never desired to climb the corporate ladder. You will possibly learn that,

  • They are not aimless. In reality, at some point in their careers, they made a conscious choice to not pursue the traditional career advancement paths and stay in their roles as “senior contributors.” Their dominant priorities lie elsewhere: usually with family, community, faith, and creative interests. They view their careers as means to other ends. They set goals for what they seek to achieve, create a plan, and relate to their values in the right way, everyday.
  • They are quite influential in their organizations. They gain credibility not by virtue of positions or titles, but from years of experience, awareness of processes and historical perspectives. They seek to mentor young engineers and offer their opinions and judgments when consulted by management. They gain an immense sense of satisfaction by helping their organizations grow. They are widely respected.
  • Their salaries are quite comparable to people who have identical spans of service in their organizations and have assumed leadership roles. They are highly valuable contributors.

The “senior contributors” are not the only ones who have shunned the corporate ladder. Many women choose to work three days a week once they have kids. Husbands of career-minded moms have relinquished their rewarding careers to become stay-at-home dads and support their wives’ careers. Frequently, executives decline international assignments that could keep them away from family. All these people tend to feel in command of their life and career — they are more contented in their careers and have a stronger sense of work-life balance. For sure, they can teach the rest of us a thing or two about setting the course of our lives.

The long-hours culture is not for everybody

The long-hours culture is not for everybody

A successful corporate career demands a high-level of performance for sustained periods You probably recollect the days when corporate people had reasonably secure jobs, showed up at work every workday, clocked in, worked eight hours, clocked out, stopped thinking about work until the next workday, and enjoyed four weeks of vacation a year. They could maintain a healthy separation between work and personal time. Alas, those days are long over.

In today’s workplace, the demands on our energy, time, and creativity constantly overwhelm us, despite access to technology, computers, and other productivity tools. We have so much on our plates that we only rarely complete things WHEN and AS we would wish to. The workday is longer, the pace of work is faster, and most projects tend to be open-ended. The pressure to learn new skills is prominent. A successful corporate career demands a high-level of performance for sustained periods. At what cost, though? Unsurprisingly, the pressure to work harder and longer results in poor physical health, stress, anxiety, lesser time with family and friends, fewer opportunities to pursue hobbies and creative interests, and insufficient rest and relaxation.

Work or life or both — its your choice

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
* Henry David Thoreau

There is no magic potion or canned method for balancing your work and life. Finding balance is rather an exercise in finding a healthy perspective that works for you. Nobody but you can make the right choices and work out what is best for you to bring about a sense of satisfaction of physical, mental, financial, intellectual, professional, and social well-being.

Finding Work-Life Balance

Everyone has to find his or her own individual balance

The quest for work-life balance begins with defining what balance means to you. Reflect on what you value most in life and prioritize them. Include your family in your contemplations of choices and consequences. Establish a set of boundaries between an adequate amount of effort and return. Consider your personal and professional aspirations, the family and social life you desire, your hobbies and interests and your goals and dreams.

Ask yourself, “How much is adequate?” and, “How much success and money is good enough?” Set boundaries and limits between what you must do and what you want to achieve in the short term and in the long term. The choices you make and your ability to respect the limits your set for yourself should shape your work and career, not the other way around.

Explore alternate arrangements at work

After you reflect on what could constitute a sense of individual balance for you, examine your career objectives. Once you are clear about what you want, consider the potential consequences to your employer. Discuss your options and proposals with a trusted advisor, the human resources / personnel department, and your boss. Most companies care for their employees enough to offer options for part-time or flexible schedules, working from home or sabbaticals.

Lead a life to your own script, not to others’

The world will shape your life, if you let it. Establish what you want to achieve in your life; do not let others impose their proposals for you. Make the right choices and live true to your values. This is, in essence, the key to finding the illusive work-life balance.

Work-Life Balance: “Accomplish What You Want, Not What You Think You Have to”

Work-Life Balance is an Individual Choice

Brad Feld on Work-Life Balance

Here is an excellent podcast (summary here) where Venture Capitalist Brad Feld discusses his thoughts on the concept of work-life balance. He also shares the changes he implemented to achieve more balance in his life. Also, see a previous article by Brad on this very topic. Here are key takeaways:

  • The sense of busyness is not the same as the sense of achievement.
  • Balance is an important issue to consider at all ages, as many make the mistake in believing they will “get the balance on the back half of life” and find it shorter than they hoped (“you don’t know when the lights are going to go out (when you are going to die.)”)
  • Work-life balance is an important issue to everyone, yet each person’s approach will be different. There is no one-size fits all approach.

Work-Life Balance is an Individual Choice

Work-Life Balance is an Individual Choice

Balancing the various demands on our time is by no means easy. It is unrealistic to establish a ratio between ‘work’ and ‘play’ time to pursue the sense of balance.

Balance is an individual choice you have to make based on your personal and professional values and associate relative priorities between these values. Here are five essential guidelines to make such choices.

  • Don’t become a slave to your work. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Work is a means of living, it is not life itself.”
  • Slow down your life and develop mindfulness. Simplify your life and inculcate discipline. Focus on the simple things. Control your wants and meet your core needs.
  • Talk to your family and friends and explore ways to introduce more fun into your daily routine.
  • Sleep more. Help around the home. Go on more vacations. Cultivate a hobby or two. Volunteer for a good cause. Do something meaningful with your spare time.
  • Learn to control how you react to other people and their demands on your time, money, or both. Consider the cost on your own resources and become skilled at how to refuse unimportant demands.

Realizing the balance in your life is your prerogative.