Zoom calls became a solution for connecting remote teams, and Zoom fatigue quickly became a complaint. But another communication tool—email—is a bigger cause of stress. According to a study by the email app Superhuman, 64% of remote workers would rather resume a daily commute than continue dealing with the growing number of emails and instant messages that are filling up their inboxes. In fact, nearly half of respondents said they’d rather clean their bathroom than sort through their unopened emails.
The study found that 50% of remote workers have spent personal money on tools to help manage their productivity, but the problem may be better solved with a more effective system of dealing with email, says Laura Mae Martin, executive productivity adviser for Google.
“Email has always been a cause of stress,” says Martin. “It ranges from having too much of it to not finding something when you need it. Email anxiety is due to a constant flow of other people asking you for things or sending you things. We feel like we don’t have enough time to keep up.”
And the pandemic has made it worse. “We used to have a quick chat in the hall, and that’s becoming email,” says Martin. “Email has inflated as it’s become a method of communication that used to take place face-to-face.”
But there’s a solution, and Martin likens email to laundry. “Think of your inbox as your dryer with a bunch of clothes in it,” she says. “Imagine opening the dryer, taking out one shirt, folding it, and walking it to the dresser. That would be inefficient. Or imagine finding a wet pair of pants, throwing them in with dry clothes, and deciding to figure it out tomorrow. This is how most people manage their email, walking one email out at a time and keeping things in their inboxes too long.”
Instead, Martin suggests sorting emails into piles—or separate inboxes—as you would do with clothes, matching like items. Then you “fold” them and put them away in one batch.
How it Works
The first step is getting your inbox into a good place before you start your daily tasks. Martin suggests getting anything out of your inbox that you don’t need to see, such as promotional newsletters. You can unsubscribe or create a rule or filter within your email platform that sends them to a separate inbox.
Next, mark email that is very important. “If the CEO of your company is sending you an email, it should look different,” says Martin.
Use the VIP labels many email platforms provide that can flag messages that need immediate attention. These first two steps will help start the sorting process and separate clutter from what’s important.
Next, carve out time for dealing with email. One of the reasons people feel overwhelmed by email is because they don’t consider it a task and try to fit it in between other tasks. Martin suggests taking 20 minutes each morning to go through your email. Start with the oldest and make a decision if it’s something you can delete or archive.
If not, it will go into one of three piles:
- Something you need to do
- Something you need to read
- Something that is waiting for more information or a response
If it’s something you need to do that will take less than two minutes, go ahead and handle it. If not, move it into designated inboxes for the defined tasks. Martin designates another block of time after lunch and one more before she signs off of work for sorting her inbox.
During the rest of the day, be intentional about going to these task buckets. For example, carve out a block to handle action emails that require you to do something or identify a time to handle the emails that need to be read.
“Just as you would fold, fold, fold clothes, read, read, read your emails,” says Martin, who likes to use low-energy times, such as late afternoons or found time if a meeting ends 15 minutes early, to go through her read folder.
“I always have one work block during the day, maybe an hour, where I answer the emails that have something I need to do,” she says. “And I close my email twice a day for at least an hour to get things done. A lot of people are scared to close out of email, but you need that heads-down time to get non-email work projects done.”
Thousands of Googlers have taken Martin’s course, and a survey found that they reclaim 19% of their time during the day using her method.
“Email is not typically your job; it’s a vehicle to help you accomplish your job,” she says. “It’s how you get information. The mentality shift is in how you approach it.”