The Rules of One: Putting Email in its Place

I read recently that Mike Hyatt, one of the most prolific social networkers in the country and one of the busiest guys in the universe, clears out his email inbox every day.

Weirdo that I am, I was inspired.

If a guy as busy as Mike can do it, so can we youth workers, who tend to be (in)famous for irritating our bosses, our youth ministry stakeholders, and even our spouses with the way we handle email.  Let’s face it.  The all-too-normal youth worker has an all-too-normal day like this:

We step into our office, and the first thing we do is to fire up our email.  We scan through the 100 or so subject lines, delete the spam, read an urgent email or two, and then check the ESPN site.  We get a cup of coffee, come back, maybe even start a to do list.  And throughout the day, we check our email dozens of times, often spending an unexpected 30 minutes or so responding to a single message.  And we end the day feeling like we have accomplished next to nothing.

I for one am tired of having my email take over my day like kudzu.  If you are too, try out my three Rules of One:

Tend to email ONE HOUR a day.   Research is clear: Multi-taskers are actually less focused and less productive.  A single, focused hour each day will take less time than reading emails throughout the day.  An hour a day allows us to attack our email with gazelle-like intensity and avoid the kudzu effect.

Tend to email ONE TIME a day.  Our email doesn’t belong at our dinner tables, in staff meetings, or during our time with God.  Nothing will irritate a senior pastor (or a spouse) quite like our partial presence, while our face buried in our phones. So corral your email work into a single time slot each day.  Tomorrow you can deal with the emails that come in today.  I have yet to meet a spouse, a senior pastor, or a son or daughter who says, “I’m so glad my _____ is being extra productive by keeping up with their email every hour.”  Looking at our email dozens of times daily will cost us.  We won’t get ahead; we will stay distracted.

Develop ONE SYSTEM for managing your inbox.  We all need to create our own system for managing the daily barrage of emails.  Here are a few of mine:

  • If it can be dealt with in two minutes or less, I deal with it and delete it.
  • I try to touch snail mail and email just once, either trash it, act on it quickly, or defer it to a task list that I will focus on later.
  • I like to focus my subject lines so that even people who don’t open the email get the key element of the message (for example, instead of “Youth Ministry Update,” I like “Register Now for Fall Retreat, October 7-8”).
  • I want to make sure your email system gives you the ability to search deleted emails for those times when I need to recheck a detail.

Putting our email in its place allows us to practice that rule of focus: Wherever you are, be there.  We’ll spend less time on your email by giving more focus to it, and we’ll have more time for the things that matter most, for God, our families, and our ministries.

(First published in The Youth Ministry Consultant Column of Group Magazine,  Nov/Dec 2012)

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