(Originally published February 5, 2015, Updated April 11, 2019)
Are you frustrated by your inability to keep up with your email, and have these challenges led to:
- missed deadlines?
- being called out by someone in your professional or personal circles?
- missed opportunities – maybe even prospective business?
- scheduling snafus?
If you experience any of the above on a regular basis, then you know how critical it is for your success to get a handle on your email. That’s why you’re reading this article, right? Keeping up with the constant onslaught of email is often a challenge for many adults with ADHD. And it is also likely your ADHD is contributing to these challenges.
Knowing how your ADHD may be impacting your ability to stay on top of your email can help you create the right workarounds. The ones that put you in control, so your email doesn’t continue to overwhelm you. The key to accomplishing this, of course, is to establish the right system. I know you’ve tried quite a few already with variable results.
But, if you haven’t been successful, yet, you are likely missing one or more pieces of the email puzzle. In this three-part series, I’ll guide you step-by-step through the process of managing your email in a way that will work with your ADHD.
Why It’s Important to Know How Your ADHD Contributes to Your Email Challenges
You know your ADHD makes it hard to do some of your tasks. And, if you can drop or delegate (barter, hire or assign someone) those, you should! But what do you do when, as is true with email, you can’t? Obviously, you’ll need to learn how to manage these tasks better.
To do this the first step is to understand what is getting in your way. Since your ADHD is likely one of the contributing factors, it’s important to explore exactly how it is tripping you up. I promise you this understanding will pay off in the short run and the long run.
Because you will:
- create better workarounds when you can address your challenges, including those related to your ADHD.
- have more self-compassion, as you will more clearly see the impact of your unique brain wiring.
- then stop beating yourself up for your ADHD related challenges.
- be able to better focus on what is important when you have more mental and physical energy in your reserves.
Makes sense, right? So, let’s get on to looking at what your ADHD related challenges might be.
How Your ADHD Can Make It Hard to Manage Your Email
One of your ADHD challenges is you pay attention to everything. Though, I know you may think you can’t pay attention. It’s the opposite. So, when you’re in the middle of doing a task, and an email comes in, you look at it. And, as you know, unless you figure out a way to stem the email tide, the tsunami of emails will continue to distract you from your important work.
One of the reasons is your ADHD brain craves stimulation. And, with every incoming email, your brain is thinking, “Oh, I wonder what that is. This work is really boring. Let me just check out that one email.” It can feel like a Pavlovian experiment. Or something like that.
And it’s also obvious you’re not as productive when you’re constantly looking at your email, right? But what about the time you lose when you stop, task switch and start again — transition? Transitions are a challenge for ADHD adults, for sure. As, every time you look at your email, you then need to ramp back up to fully engage in your original task. That can take a lot of time!
In addition, I know you may tell yourself, “I’ll just look at this one email and get back to work.” But every time you task switch, you’re more prone to distractions. So, while you may intend to quickly look at your email, there is a greater likelihood you will go down one or more rabbit holes. And, before you know it, you might have completely forgotten to get back to your original task. Sound familiar?
So, there you have it. The key point is you need to take your ADHD into consideration when thinking of ways to manage your email.
What Does It Mean to Process Your Email When You Have ADHD?
Still with me? I’m finally getting to the part where I talk about managing your email.
What do you think it means to process your email? Like many, you may think it’s a time when you glance at your inbox to see if there’s anything important you need to reply to. If that’s the case, you might cherry pick the emails that seem important. And, if you feel like you can answer, you will.
Those that you don’t answer just hang there in your inbox, right? As these emails, some of which may be really important, remain, your inbox continues to expand. And, as your inbox explodes, so does your stress. To avoid this stress and discomfort, you may then avoid even looking at your email. Obviously, that’s not good.
To mitigate your feelings of overwhelm and engage productively with your email, you’ll need to take time to process it. This means taking time to decide what to do with each and every email. Not just those that catch your attention because they’re interesting or feel urgent. 🙂
Consistently engaging in this process will help you worry less and, consequently, decrease the constant loop of:
- Did I answer “that” email?
- What am I missing/forgetting?
- I can’t believe I forgot to respond, and now another “opportunity” just slipped through my fingers.
- When is the next person going to hound me for forgetting to respond to an email?
You’ll be able to decrease these thought loops because you’re making decisions about your email, rather than leaving them as open loops. Then you will not feel so overwhelmed. If that sounds good to you, you’ll want to take the first step below.
Step #1 – Decide the Amount of Time Needed to Process Your Email Each Day
Adults with ADHD often have a wonky sense of time. Sometimes this is referred to as time blindness. In any case, one of your challenges related to this may be estimating time. And this means you may have no idea right now of how much time you need to process your email each day to keep on top of it.
As with any task, though, you can figure this out. One way to get an accurate estimate of the time you need is to set a timer each time you process your email for the next two weeks. Of course, in the beginning, when you are just learning how to process your email you will likely need much more time.
A suggestion. While I have no idea how much time you will eventually need, try setting aside an hour to begin. If you’re a fan of the Pomodoro method, you might try to 2x 25-30-minute blocks. The only way to figure out how much time you need is to experiment. So, hopefully, you’ll be okay with getting it wrong in the beginning.
Step #2 – Decide When You Will Process Your Email
Right now, if you primarily manage your email by checking it on the run — in between your “important work,” you likely:
- avoid dealing with some emails because you don’t have time to formulate an answer.
- tell yourself about other emails, “I’ll get to it later.” Because it doesn’t feel urgent to answer now.
- leave other emails in your inbox because you think it will serve as a reminder to read it later.
But, while you’re trying to be efficient by handling your email on the go, remember your inbox is growing exponentially. In part, this is because you are not giving yourself enough time to make decisions about what to do with each email. The antidote is to choose 1-4 times during the day when you will dedicate time to process and respond to email.
So, you’re pulled to stay on top of your email, even though it’s not intrinsically interesting, remind yourself of the reason — the reward — for doing this. It may sound something like,
I really want to maintain good lines of communication. And being consistent with my email is one way to do this. So, I really want to make a commitment to make it a core part of my workday.
I’m sure you’ll still look at your email at random times. Just make sure you’re spending enough time doing a deep dive, as well.
Step #3 – Treat Your Backlog As A Separate Project
If you’re like many people, you might currently have a backlog of email. And there aren’t enough Pomodoros in your day to deal with this, right? The workaround for this is to practice staying on top of your current email (email from the last week or so). To do this make sure you devote your regular processing times to clearing out your current email.
And then treat your backlog (email older than a week) as a separate project by
- scheduling time over the next few weeks to work on it.
- reminding yourself it will take a fair bit of time to do this.
- making it as palatable as possible. Maybe go to a coffee shop?
If you try to tackle your backlog along with your current email, you might have a hard time persisting. Because it will seem too daunting. So, if possible, don’t try. Do your backlog separately.
Stay Tuned for Step #4
In the next part of this series, I’ll focus on helping you decide what to do with each email. Because that decision-making process is likely one of the challenges that is keeping you from tackling your inbox on a regular basis.
So, stay tuned.