Do you feel like you spend half your day processing emails instead of actually working?
Marsha Egan, CEO of InboxDetox.com and author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of Email Excellence, says that a full inbox is "an immediate source of stress—it reminds you of everything you’re not going to get done."
According to Egan, the average worker receives 100 to 200 emails per day. Even if you only spend a minute addressing each one, that’s two to three hours on email alone.
To fight back against the inbox black hole, she says, we don’t need to pay for fancy plugins or shiny apps. "The issue is self-management," Egan explains. "Outlook and Google already have built-in tools, but few people use them. The key is to manage yourself and your email habits rather than hoping technology will do it for you."
That sounds reasonable, but how do we do it? Below, Egan shares her top five tips for minimizing an overwhelming inbox and maximizing productivity during the day.
Egan advises turning off all the "dings and flashes," so that office updates and team-wide invitations don’t distract you from your current task. That could mean disabling push notifications to your phone, muting the volume on your computer, or closing your email tab when you aren’t using it. It’s not enough to promise yourself you won’t look—"You have to actually shut them down," she says, "because you can’t help but wonder who’s trying to reach you."
"If you’re interrupted, even if you handle it in one minute, it takes another four minutes to get back to what you were doing before," she explains. "It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. If you can reduce 15 interruptions a day, you’ll find yourself with at least an hour more of productivity. If you do this for a week, that’s five more hours of uninterrupted working time."
Of course, you can’t just turn off your email for the entire day. The key to minimizing the interruptions you can’t eliminate is to deal with your messages in batches.
"Think of the longest amount of time you’ve gone without checking your email," Egan suggests. "We’ve all been in those meetings that went an hour and a half and the sky didn’t fall." Depending on your industry (after all, a journalist who needs to process breaking news will have different email needs than a fashion buyer), she finds that most people don’t need to check their email more than five times a day.
For maximum productivity, she suggests, limit your checks to just three times a day: first thing in the morning, after lunch, and near the end of the day. If that seems completely unreasonable, add in a mid-morning and mid-afternoon email fix. "Anything but the direst emergency—which shouldn’t be conveyed in email anyway—can wait 90 minutes or more," she says.
Email, Egan advises, shouldn’t be your default method of communication. "A lot of people make their own email trouble by sending too much email," she says. "Email begets email." If you need something in less than three hours, she instructs, "use another mode of communication, such as a phone call, a visit, or even a text. This allows people to work on other things without fearing the ‘ding.’"
By modeling the behavior you want other people to use (namely, not flooding their inboxes), you encourage them to do the same—especially if you’re a manager. "If a boss sends an important note two minutes before the meeting," Egan explains, "then everyone in the company has learned they can’t shut their email down."
Also, she reminds us, email is for communication of facts, not feelings. "If an email can be misinterpreted, it will be," she cautions. If you aren’t sending facts, figures, or documents, Egan recommends making use of that antiquated tool on your desk: the phone. "Even if you have to leave a voice mail, the voice inflections and other verbal communication aids make it easier for someone to recognize intent than with an email." And, of course, beware the dreaded "reply all." Every time you hit "reply all" when it’s not needed, you invite people to "reply all" to you.
Email does have its uses, but probably not the ones you think. "Your email is a delivery tool, not a dysfunctional to-do list," Egan says. "People keep messages in their inbox to remind them of upcoming tasks, which means they waste a lot of time surfing their inbox to find out what they need to work on next. What if you treated your U.S. Postal Service mail that way?" she asks. "It’s like pulling out your mail, recycling half of it, and then putting the bills and other correspondence back in the mailbox to go through the next day."
A better strategy is to triage your email during your designated ‘checking periods’ (see tip number two), responding to the simple and urgent messages, filing away those that don’t need addressing, and flagging the ones that need some more thought. "Create folders within your inbox, sort the emails that need action, and then set a calendar reminder to remind you when to revisit any deadline-oriented messages," Egan suggests.
If you can’t give your email the appropriate attention, don’t bother checking it. "Check your email only when you have time to respond, not just react," Egan advises. "Why would you check your email five minutes before you go to sleep? If someone sends a scathing note, you’ll stew about it all night, and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about it."
Plus, studies show that exposure to a bright screen before bed (like the one that displays your email, whether that’s a computer, phone or tablet) may make it harder to fall asleep and to get high-quality rest.
And trying to "quickly check email" when spending time with friends or family isn’t doing us any favors—LearnVest research has found that while 30% of workers take all of their vacation time, 13% of them spend it working. Does that sound relaxing to you? Instead of getting lured off the beach by a "quick check," wait until you have the time to respond as needed. After all, no one does their best work in a bathing suit.
Email, when used properly, can be a powerful tool. But you have to be the one in charge.
This article originally appeared in LearnVest and is reprinted with permission.