How to Be Lean with Email | Define & Measure (Part 1 of 5)

I stared at my inbox of 17,000 messages

and wondered, how did it come to this?  There was this nagging burden on my shoulders, I almost couldn’t stop thinking about it - it was always in the back of my mind, constantly turning.

The email wouldn’t stop. 

Not only was my email piling up uncontrollably, I started getting behind at work and I began working extra hours. 

I was clicking on incoming pings about every 90 seconds, reading them, deciding to respond later, and letting them sit in my inbox, while I tried to remember what I was working on before the ping came. 

Meanwhile, my inbox grew fatter and fatter and my anxiety followed suit.


Back to Basics

The emails usually subsided around 5PM, so despite working 60-miles away from home, I was working late to catch up and actually get work done. 

It didn’t take me long to realize this isn’t a way to live; there had to be a better method.  So I decided it was time for a change and went back to engineering roots.

Engineers are trained to solve problems. 

Back when I was studying engineering, I had time to solve problems; I had time to work on other things besides email.  Email wasn’t even really a thing in the early 2000’s, and I’ve discovered from speaking and interacting with today’s college students, email isn’t a focal point for them either.

It’s not until we join the workforce that the nonsense begins.  So we end up jumping into this culture of backwards expectations, completely unprepared for a career in managing e-mail noise.

I digress.

In engineering school and in Corporate America, I learned about “Lean Principles," about eliminating waste from a process for making or manufacturing something, and about “Six Sigma,” a data-driven improvement cycle for reducing defects in a process.  

When the term Lean Thinking started to become popular through books like Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, I realized these principles weren’t limited to manufacturing automobiles in Japan; they’re not even limited to what we do at work. 

Lean thinking can be applied to just about anything in our lives, including personal effectiveness. 

This revelation led me to evaluate at my process for everything I do a little differently...

...including email. 

Equipped with my background in engineering, I began a project to reduce email waste and eliminate toxic email behavior.


The Foundations of Process Improvement

Fundamentally, improving any process is rooted in an acronym called DMAIC, which stands for D-efine, M-easure, A-nalyze, I-mprove and C-ontrol.

If we start with DMAIC, the principles are relatively straightforward if applied to email processes.

We just need to determine which questions to ask, and what tools to use. There are many available to do the job.

However, before we move dive deeper into DMAIC, I want to emphasize a key contributor to the mechanics of my strategy on email: 

office culture


Battling a Toxic E-mail Office Culture

If you want to try to work with your Senior Vice President and start a project to reduce email waste in the entire office, have at it!  It very well may indeed demonstrate lasting, sustainable results...hopefully it will, but it usually takes more than an initiative to change a culture. 

Experience working for 14 years in Corporate America has shown me that the best way to change culture is to consistently lead by example, even if you're not at the top of the food chain.

Going against the grain with something you feel passionate about, and showing results as an employee, goes much further than yet another Corporate initiative.  

If you want to change the way your office works with email, change your own processes.  

Set boundaries, explain why you do what you do, and hold firm.  

The principles outlined herein will not address implementing Lean Email from the top down, but rather from an individual contributor.  

Nevertheless, if you’re a middle manager with a small team, you’re in a very good position to lead by example and mentor your employees on basic principles of effectiveness, the majority of which have nothing to do with email.

Start small, show results, then expand.



It Starts with a Hypotheses

Lean thinking starts with using the scientific method for defining and testing hypotheses

You probably remember the word “hypothesis” from fifth-grade science class.

Fifth-Grade science class

Fifth-Grade science class

A hypothesis is a theory or assumption that requires testing.  Tests are conducted by designing, developing and running an experiment, right? 

I’m sure the one thing you’re all longing to do this week is run an experiment when you get back to your desk tomorrow morning (no white lab coats or smoky test tubes, I promise). 

Well, the good news is I’ve done most of that legwork already when it comes to email.

Although individual preferences always vary, I’ve run a whole bunch of experiments to optimize my personal process for email, and I’ve also taken a deep dive into studies performed by experts like Jim Collins and John Freeman

So here’s my one of the first hypotheses I’ve tested personally as related to my email inbox:

A person is more productive when he or she checks email in timed batches.

A batch is simply focusing on a single task like processing email, multiple times consecutively.

So I timed my batches.

I tested this and many other hypotheses, including one of my favorites:

The less email I send, the less I will receive.

You may have your own hypothesis about email that you want to test, but these were the two big ones for me.

As this blog post series on email progresses, I’ll be getting into etiquette and best practices, such as turning off auto-notifications for incoming emails. 

Most of these etiquette practices, at least in my mind, did not require testing - I can say with 100% confidence that I spend less time and that I’m more productive without auto-notifications without running an experiment. 

If anyone wants to challenge me on this one, please send me your rationale.  I’m seriously struggling to come up with even one reason why any auto notifications would improve a person’s productivity…

…I digress again.

It took continuous, tiny little iterations and tweaks to figure out what works best to get things done effectively and to be transparent, you’ll have to continuously tweak your personal process as well.  Yes, even after reading this blog post!

What I’ll present to you are the fundamentals of lean email; the heavy hitters.

I think you get the idea, let’s move on to the next phase of DMAIC, the “measure” phase.  



A Simple Approach to Knowing Your Email Habits

Now that we’ve defined a few hypotheses, we need to test them through experimentation, and an experiment requires developing a process for collecting data to support or reject our hypothesis.  

Don’t shutdown on me yet…we’re not publishing a white paper here, we’re just trying to get our time back from our thieving inbox.

Again, let's keep it simple.

When I was an employee, I had to measure what it meant to be more effective at work.  This will be different for everyone in this room, but if we’re measure email effectiveness, there are an abundance of tools available to help us easily collect data. 


Measuring Hypothesis one (time Spent on Email)

If you’re an email junkie CrackBerry-type who always has Outlook open, see if you can keep your email client closed when you’re not checking it. 

Don’t limit yourself on how long you spend checking messages at first.  Open Outlook as many times as you want.  

Just commit to keeping it closed when you’re working on other stuff. 

Then, as you feel compelled to check your email, write the time of day on a piece of paper or post-it note, on Excel, or using whatever tool you’re comfortable with.

It’s ok to keep a mental note of how long you have it open each time, but I wouldn’t trust myself to remember what time I started checking email each time. 

Instead, by quickly jotting down the time of day, it’s easy of me to keep track without having to expend energy thinking about it. 

Manual time tracking

Manual time tracking

At the end of the day, tally up the “ballpark” hours tracked each day and do this for a week.  You can do this in your head if you want, but I like to plug it into Excel and have it calculate durations for me.

(Click here to learn how to calculate time durations in Excel, it’s not difficult, but the times do need to be in a specific format).

If the number is 20 hours, now you have a baseline for improvement, and that’s how we’ll be able to tell if you’re getting any better with email efficiency. 


An Alternative to Manual tracking

As long as you’re in the habit of opening and closing your email, instead of tracking by hand, you can use free tools that automatically track the time you spend on programs open in your computer.  

RescueTime is a great example of a tool that will do the work for you automatically, and even run customized reports, but there are many others with similar capabilities.  


Measuring Hypothesis Two (tracking sent Email)

The second hypothesis couldn’t be easier to track because your email client does the work for you.  To track how many emails you’re sending each day, set a calendar task at the end of your day to go into Outlook or Gmail and to document the number of messages in your “sent” folder. 

If you do this for two weeks the result will be a very tangible baseline for improving process.


Tying it Back to Productivity

Tracking personal productivity outside of email is a subject for another blog post.  

For now, if you start trying to figure out how much more productive you’re working outside of email, the experiment will get complicated and you probably won’t do it.  

To keep myself sane, I tried to forget about how fast I was getting important stuff done rather than just vegging out on email, I focused on how much time I was not spending on email in comparison to my baseline. 

The basic assumption is: 

"When a person is not on email, that person can focus on more productive work."

For me, it wasn't until I was convinced my email was down to less than 5 hrs per week that I moved into the realm of tracking productivity, continuing with a simplistic approach. 

I zoomed out to look at the big picture:  Was I accomplishing what I set out to do for a given week?  Further, was I was doing it within 40-hrs?

At the end of the day that’s what we’re striving for, right?  

A productive week in the least amount of time possible.

I encourage stretching ourselves to complete our important tasks in minimal time, but the first goal is to simply work towards a standard, 40-hr workweek. 

First get to 40 hours, then work down. 

Note that if you’re “normal” workweek is currently around 60 or 70 hours, email may not be the only problem.

Nevertheless, at this current pace it would be difficult to reduce hours down to 40 or less right out of the gate - if this is your situation, I’d love to help you figure out how you’re spending your time! 

In the meantime, I’d recommend shooting for a 10% work hour reduction after your second week of tracking time spent on email, no matter how many hours you're currently putting in.  

A 10% reduction will get you down to around 54 to 63 hours per week, depending on how many you’re currently working. 

Keep a tally on your results, but don’t be obsessive about it.  Just get it done and don’t make an issue out of it. 

Hopefully these guidelines provide a framework for measuring your email performance.  Gmail and other tools have many features to assist with processing email more efficiently.

Nevertheless, the goal of this article is to create a simple tracking mechanism that results in a personal baseline for improving your email efficiency.

Please leave a comment below and let me know if you have other mechanisms for tracking email efficiency and/or how your email experiments are going!

Continue reading this series on Lean Email: