4 Ways to Overhaul Your Email Habits and Take Back Your Time
Castle in the sky. Pipe dream. Fool’s paradise. They all mean an unattainable fantasy, and for many, that’s the idea of finally reaching “inbox zero.”
Each weekday in the U.S., white-collar workers spend about 5.4 hours checking email, according to an Adobe Campaign survey. More than any other age group, people ages 18 to 34 tend to check email during workouts, while eating with friends and even while driving.
So why is email such a “time suck”? For one, email sets up the day’s agenda by time of arrival, and that’s not an accurate or efficient way to sort tasks, says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Realtime notifications aren’t efficient, either, since they often serve as distractions from the work at hand. Since people often check email on the go, they tend to read each message multiple times unnecessarily before they have time to respond later.
The good news: “Inbox zero” is possible -- and so is saving hours of time each day for increased productivity. Here’s your go-to guide for revamping your email strategy.
1. Think of email like snail mail.
Imagine receiving one piece of snail mail every few minutes and opening each letter immediately. Inefficient, right? The way regular mail works, people get one batch a day, meaning they check it once and make decisions right away about what to throw away and what to flag.
“We don’t do email that way,” says Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. “We do it as if the mailman’s just sitting there and taps you on the shoulder every minute and rings a bell in your ear.”
Even worse, imagine opening a piece of mail, reading it, closing it back up, returning it to the postman and saying, “Give it back to me in a little bit,” Bregman says. That’s essentially what we’re doing when we read an email on the go without time to respond.
2. Stick to scheduled email sessions -- and turn off notifications.
The first step in changing your email strategy is to stop checking it in realtime. Commit to opening your inbox no more than three times a day -- at the beginning, middle and end of the day. When you do check your email, do it mindfully -- sit down, focus and give it your full attention.
First, go through and delete whatever you can, says Joseph R. Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University. Answer whatever you can immediately, file messages you need to keep in corresponding inbox folders, then close your inbox until the next planned time.
To make this strategy work, it’s important to make sure your inbox is always closed except for the specific times you planned. That means no notifications, either -- turn off new message alerts and icon badges on your phone. That way, you won’t be tempted to check your email between scheduled sessions.
3. Take advantage of inbox filters.
Ariely sorts his email four different ways -- “Now,” “Daily,” “Weekly” and “One Day” -- and he sets inbox rules for which senders go into each section. For example, messages from The New York Times can go into a daily folder, while he can check Amazon promotions and shipping notifications weekly -- but Ariely only checks his “One Day” section on flights or when he has extra downtime.
Set up your own filters. In Gmail, simply search for something in your inbox -- for example, an investor’s name. Next, click “More,” “Create filter with this search,” then choose what you’d like the filter to do (like send the investor’s email to your “Now” folder), finally, click “Create filter.” This strategy helps save time and energy since you can direct your attention according to message urgency.
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4. “Always be closing.”
“They say about salespeople, ‘Always be closing,’” Bregman says. “You should think of your email in the same way. What do I do to respond to an email to not create seven more emails for 25 more people?”
That might be picking up the phone and calling someone instead of going back and forth multiple times to schedule a meeting. It might mean taking unnecessary recipients off of a thread, or it might be definitively ending the conversation once goals have been met. Be intentional with every message you send, and always have the same goal in mind -- preventing unnecessary back-and-forth.