Email is still the killer app of the internet. It's also the biggest impediment to workplace productivity.
In my role as CTO at Atlantic Media, I'm often crushed by the weight of my inbox. I feel like a general, far removed from the front lines, trying to cull through an infinite amount of information in order to make critical company decisions. My problem is not a unique one and so I set about to quantify it.
After a little research, we saw that our email servers handled 39,421 messages in one week. And, even more shocking was that 11,663 of these messages were within the company, close to 30 percent! Ouch.
I'm not able to change the noise level of the email ecosystem. I'm also not going to extricate myself from it, because it's critical for business. What I'm able to change is my own behavior, so I focused on developing ways to minimize the noise and maximize the value of email.
The quick win was to differentiate emails where I'm the sole recipient from other messages. Digging through my inbox, I saw that only 16 percent of emails were sent just to me. Every other message had multiple recipients, or CCed me. A couple of quick inbox filters and I could now manage the email noise.
Now, any email that has me CCed or BCCed skips my inbox and goes straight into a folder. These are not time-sensitive and I can deal with them at a less workflow-impacting time. A second filter highlighted every email where I was the sole recipient. These messages directed at me are likely important, requiring my attention.
Already, my inbox was looking much cleaner. Over 35 percent of my emails were now out of my immediate view into the CCed folder.
Two more quick filters and I was done. Any message that came from within my company was marked "internal" and anything from outside was marked "external." This restructuring of my inbox created a scannable and manageable email dashboard. At a glance, I can differentiate a colleague's message from that of a vendor. I can also see if an email is sent to a group of people, or just me.
Filters in place, I altered my email workflow in two other areas to control how I processed incoming messages. First, I only opened my email once an hour to resist the temptation of quickly switching windows and hitting refresh. Full transparency: sometimes I break this rule.
Second, and most important, I disabled all email notifications -- the biggest productivity killer ever bestowed upon the workforce. It takes roughly 30 seconds to refocus after a minor distraction. I'm getting 200 emails per day, which means I was spending one hour and 40 minutes every day, trying to refocus on my work. That is a colossal waste of time.
It took me just 30 minutes to make these changes and, almost immediately, I felt like I was operating in a streamlined workflow. Next, I needed to work on how I sent email. Keeping it simple, I came up with a two rules to minimize my email burden and not add to the email pollution pervasive in the company. The first was not answering emails that don't have a question in them. This is simple and very effective at cutting the volume of email you send.
An email that delivers information to you does not warrant a response. If you and your recipient are prone to send responses for every email, you're going to be stuck in an infinite vortex of reply pong. If the email is a task, do it or delegate it. If it requires some more processing or additional information, defer it. All other emails should be dropped.
Lastly, don't use email as a substitute for instant messenger. It's intended be used to share complete thoughts and ideas. Don't send the "hey, let's go to lunch" email. Pick up the phone.
Most importantly, never send the "thanks" note, confirming that you received someone's message. If it's so critical for you to receive it, the sender should follow up with a call or IM.
I now communicate with much greater efficiency and no longer choke on email pollution or noise. I check my streamlined and manageable inbox at regular intervals with a lowered anxiety level. I no longer need to scroll infinitely through messages on my mobile phone to find the one I'm looking for.
Also, I now send about 30 percent less email, and, while I can't control how much email comes to me, I only focus on those that truly require my attention, which is about 40 percent of my total volume. A 60 percent decrease in email is a massive productivity gain.
Free yourself from the madness of email and try this out yourself. You are in the business of innovating and creating, not managing your inbox.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Tom Cochran currently works at the U.S. Department of State in the Bureau of International Information Programs. Prior to that, he was the Chief Technology Officer at Atlantic Media, and served as the Director of New Media Technologies forThe White House.