Be honest. When dealing with your work emails, how much of your time is spent in a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole?
According to a 2012 report by McKinsey & Company, workers spend 28% of their day reading, writing, or responding to email. We’ve all heard the advice that prioritizing our inbox or tasks is half the battle. But what if it’s not?
Ed Batista, executive coach and instructor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, recently wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review suggesting that the most productive people don’t just prioritize–they triage requests for their time, and ignore items that don’t reach a certain threshold of importance.
In an emergency, Batista explains, doctors triage patients, deciding who’s the most critical, who can wait, and who doesn’t need help. In business, triage consists of prioritizing tasks and “actively ignoring the vast number of items whose importance falls below a certain threshold.”
“After we prioritize, we act as though everything merits our time and attention, and we’ll get to the less important items later. But later never really arrives,” Batista says.
Instead, he argues, our time and attention are limited resources, and leaders will never be able to meet others’ demands for both, no matter how hard they work or how much time they spend at the office. Therefore, Batista recommends leaders create a cutoff point: deciding for themselves what merits their attention and tuning out the rest.
While acknowledging that saying no can be difficult, Batista says it’s necessary to create time for the tasks that do matter. Otherwise, you may find yourself giving your limited time and attention to people that don’t deserve it. While that may sound harsh, he says worrying too much about others’ reactions or fearing that you’re coming off as callous is precisely the reason we spend so much time on tasks that aren’t important.
There’s a fine line between practicing effective triage and being a jerk, Batista says, and many of us are so afraid of crossing the line we don’t get near it.
To get over this fear, Batista gives these three tips:
Make peace with the fact that you’re never going to be able to get to every item on your list, answer every email, or meet with every person who asks for your time. These aren’t signs of failure, Batista says. Rather, they’re signs of success, “evidence that people want our time and attention.” Instead of aiming for an empty inbox, shoot for an inbox emptied of all messages that matter to you.
Remind yourself that it’s not about making lists or prioritizing, it’s about sticking to your bottom line: deciding what’s important to you, and ignoring everything that falls below that line.