In the knowledge economy, email is one of the largest distractions we face every day—it’s usually the largest pain point for the people I speak to and coach (with meetings being a close second).
One of the best strategies to tame email is to limit how many email notifications you receive, which limits how frequently you’re interrupted. Sixty-four percent of people use notifications with either audible or visual signals to alert them to new messages—if you fall into this category, you’re probably spending too much time and attention on email.
10 email tactics that promote efficiency
In addition to limiting new message alerts, here are 10 of my favorite email tactics. These will help you check your email more deliberately, and constrain how much time and attention you spend on it in the first place. Many of these strategies also work for other messaging apps, such as Slack.
Check for new messages only if you have the time, attention, and energy to deal with whatever might have come in – This is a simple trigger that lets you make sure you can actually deal with new messages, instead of getting stressed by the new stuff to which you have to respond.
Keep a tally of how often you check for messages – The average knowledge worker checks their email eleven times per hour—eighty-eight times over the span of a day. It’s hard to get any real work done with so many interruptions.
The same study found that employees spend an average of just around 35 minutes on email per day—which means that email consumes much more attention than it does actual time.
Once you become aware of how often you check for new messages, you’ll likely want to reduce that amount of time because of the high cost of interruptions.
Predecide when you’ll check – Determining ahead of time when you’ll check for new messages works wonders for reducing the number of times you open your email. Seventy percent of emails are opened within the first six seconds of receipt, so shutting off notifications will help you work in a less agitated and reflexive way.
I personally check new messages once a day at 3 p.m. and have an autoresponse that notifies people of this. If this frequency is unrealistic for your work, come up with a compatible number—as long as it’s less than 88 times over the span of a workday, you’ll be doing better than average. It helps to schedule these blocks of time on your calendar and set an autoresponse, both to make you feel more comfortable and to hold you socially accountable.
If you still find email too tempting, enable a distraction blocker to cut yourself off. Eighty-four percent of workers keep their email client open in the background as they work, but closing it will help you focus beyond the 40-second mark.
Hyperfocus on email – If you work in an environment that demands that you be highly responsive to emails, try hyperfocusing while answering your messages. Set a timer for 20 minutes, and in that time, blow through as many emails as you possibly can.
Even if you receive an extraordinary number of messages, hyperfocusing on your inbox for 20 minutes, even as often as at the top of each hour, will enable you to get back to people quickly and allow you to still accomplish meaningful work the rest of the time. Plus, at most, the senders will have to wait only 40 to 60 minutes for a response.
Limit points of contact – It takes only 10 seconds to carry out one of the most important productivity tactics: deleting the email app on your phone. I have an email app only on my [separate] “distractions device” and on my computer.
Keep an external to-do list – Your email application is the worst possible place to keep a to-do list—it’s distracting and overwhelming, and new stuff is constantly popping up, which makes it difficult to prioritize tasks and tell what’s truly important.
A task list—where you simply keep a tally of what you have to get done today, preferably with your three daily intentions at the top—is simpler and much more powerful. While it takes an extra step to move your actionable emails to a separate list, doing so will leave you feeling much less overwhelmed and will enable you to better organize what’s on your plate.
Sign up for two email accounts – I have two email addresses: one that’s public-facing, and a private one for my closest colleagues. While I check my public-facing account once a day, I batch-check the other inbox a few times throughout the day. In select cases, this is a strategy worth adopting.
Take an “email holiday” – If you’re hunkering down on a big project, set up an autoresponder explaining that you’re on a one- or two-day “email holiday” and that you’re still in the office and can be reached by phone or in person for urgent requests. People are far more understanding of this strategy than you may think.
Use the five-sentence rule – In order to save your time and respect your email recipient’s time, keep each message you write to five sentences or less, and add a note to your email signature explaining that you’re doing so. If you feel the urge to write anything longer, use that as an opportunity to pick up the phone. This may save you from engaging in an unnecessarily protracted email exchange.
Wait before sending important messages – Not every email is worth sending immediately—this is particularly true when you find yourself in an emotionally charged state when drafting a reply. Some responses, you might ultimately decide, aren’t worth sending at all. For important messages, heated exchanges or emails that require more thought, give yourself time to respond—and let your mind wander to let new, better, and more creative ideas rise to the surface.
Email efficiency equals less stress
However we deal with it, email remains one of the most stressful elements of our work. One study that had participants go without email observed that after a period of just one week, their heart-rate variability changed as they became significantly less stressed. The subjects interacted more often with people, spent longer working on tasks, multitasked less and became much more focused.
The absence of email allowed people to work slowly and more deliberately. When the experiment ended, participants described the experience as liberating, peaceful and refreshing. While it would be impossible to get rid of email completely, try the tactics above and experiment with what works best for you.
If you’ve got any other strategies for successfully managing your inbox that you’d like to share with others, please leave them in the Comments section below.