Smartphones have made email overload worse. In just a few taps, you can scan your emails pretty much all the time. And even if you're just giving your inbox a quick glance, that time piles up and is probably better spent on other things.
Since emails feed into your inbox chronologically, it takes some extra attention just to reorganize them by priority. That usually means skimming an email once to figure out how important it is, then deciding whether and when to come back to it later. Not long ago, I decided I'd had enough of that and set a new goal: never to read an email twice.
I developed a way to manage my inbox that frees up about two hours a day and, more importantly, gives me some much-needed clarity. Previously, I'd just leave my emails in my inbox until I took care of them. My inbox had become a storage shed.
Of course, I'd get to urgent emails right away, but every day there'd be dozens of non-urgent but important emails I had to read again to remind myself what action I needed to take. Since those emails weren't time sensitive, I'd just let them hang out in my inbox. The next day, the same thing would happen.
Now, I hardly ever read an email twice. Here's how.
Many of us just keep our inbox open in a tab or window all day long or leave the app running on our phones. That was the first practice I put an end to. Instead, I set two limited periods during the day to check email. When I do, I respond immediately to urgent messages and hit delete as soon as I have. For non-urgent emails, I quickly turn them into action items on my calendar, then delete those too. For example, "Send proposal to Jeff for the web publicity campaign for his book."
Yes, this means spending more time in your calendar than you usually do, but chances are that will still amount to less time than you spend fiddling in your email over the course of a day. It also gives you more control over how and when you get things done. I use my email time to identify the tasks that are most important—not just the messages—then make sure my calendar reflects that. If I don't get something done, I can just move the action item to the next day, but the email doesn't live in my inbox anymore.
For email newsletters I subscribe to, I quickly glance at the article headlines, and if nothing jumps out at me, I hit delete. If something does grab my attention, then I go ahead and read the article right there. How many articles do you save or bookmark in a given week, only to leave them unread?
There's no time like the present, especially if you've set aside a window each day for doing just this. If I find I've been sent some form of content that can improve my business or my skills, I take the time to read it. If it's worth reading, it's worth reading now.
Contrary to prevailing wisdom about filing away what you think you'll need later on, I only file what's immediately necessary. As the organization guru Marie Kondo wryly puts it, "storage experts are hoarders." Folders that hold hundreds of emails are really just clutter pushed out of view. Not only do you know it's still there, waiting for you to clear through it all, but those folders quickly get cumbersome to sort through, even using the search tool.
Before I store emails away, I ask myself whether I'll need to go back and reference the information there right away and on a more or less continuous basis. But I try not to save anything I think I might need later if I'm not sure I already do.
Don't look at emails while you're talking to someone, shifting your case between their face and your screen of choice. Not only is it rude, it's inefficient. I try to give my full attention to the person I'm speaking with, knowing there's a time I've dedicated to giving my full attention to my emails.
This process of handling my emails once and only once has worked for me. I remind myself that my week is made up of what I do each day. If I can prevent email clutter on a daily basis, I can avoid it altogether. As Daniel J. Levitin writes in The Organized Mind, checking email is an addiction:
Each time we dispatch an email in one way or another, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and our brain gets a dollop of reward hormones telling us we accomplished something . . . But remember, it is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centers in the prefrontal cortex.
Rewiring your brain is no easy task, but it starts by rethinking your email approach. And that starts with simply thinking about it less. So log out right now, and set a time to check back in tomorrow.
Fauzia Burke is the founder and president of FSB Associates, an online publicity and marketing firm specializing in creating awareness for books and authors. She’s also the author of Online Marketing for Busy Authors. Follow her on Twitter at @FauziaBurke.