Is your email inbox driving you crazy? Does it seem like you can never keep up, no matter how much time you spend sifting through messages every day? What’s worse, if you’re like most people, you probably have multiple email accounts scattered across virtual space, all silently nagging you for attention. How much of your time do you spend dealing with email every day? Fifteen minutes? A hour? Two hours? Do you think that reading and answering email is a major part of your job? Does that really constitute productive work?
You can easily track exactly how much time you spend on email by downloading a free productivity tracker like Rescue Time or Toggl, or any number of apps for mobile devices. Go ahead, track yourself for a week and see how much of your productive time is being sucked up by email.
Once you’ve taken the first step and admitted that you have a problem, it’s time to do something about it. You’ll have to get tough on yourself and on those you’ve been enabling with your constant, lightning-quick responses. You and they have been caught in a cycle of non-work: You’re talking about work, you’re planning work, you’re evaluating the work you’ve done, but you’re not working. So, hey, why not try something new? Break that cycle and get some actual work done. Put these four rules into place and follow them religiously for one week. I bet you’ll be amazed by the results.
Streamline All Emails Into One Account
You know what, you don’t need a separate email address for every business or web page you own or manage. You don’t need an “info” account and a separate one with your name before the @. You don’t need a Gmail account and a Hotmail account and a Mac mail account. You think you do – you are arguing with me right now, telling me why you think you do – but you simply don’t. You need one respectable, adult-sounding email address that simply identifies you as you, because, after all, it’s you on the receiving end of all of those emails, right? So get rid of all of your different email addresses.
I have one exception to this rule, and that is for my “spam” email account. This is the address I enter on web sites where I want a free download or whatever, but I don’t want to have to look at the two hundred follow-up emails I’ll get where they try to sell me something. I “check” that account twice each month, essentially just to empty it out.
Of course, if you work at a company that requires you to have an email address on their system, that’s different. But you should only have one of those accounts, and in that case, that’s the only email you should be checking at work (in other words, no personal email at work).
If you currently have six different accounts for your many and varied roles in life, this will be a tough step. At the very least, start by forwarding all of your accounts into one, so that you only have to go to one place to check them. But it’s still a good idea to dispose of those accounts over time, because the back-end management (and associated costs) can be significant, if infrequent.
Now that you’ve got hundreds of emails coming into a single location every day, you better set up a tracking and filing system if you ever want to be able to find what you’re looking for again. Luckily, virtually every email system out there makes that very easy to do. Simply create folders with concise names that allow you to file emails where they belong. This way, you can make your inbox a truly useful tool, keeping only those time-sensitive “to-do” messages there where you’re forced to look at them until you’ve dealt with them.
By flagging important messages, you won’t lose track of them, even when they’ve been filed away out of sight. If there’s a meeting or deadline associated with a message, be sure to add it to your calendar or reminders before filing it. Things are already starting to shape up a bit, aren’t they?
Turn Off All Alerts
All. Turn. Them. Off. No dings, badges, banners, whistles, whatever. These are not useful tools for getting work done. They are distractors. They pull you from that important thing you were just about to do by catching your eye or ear and saying, “Hey! Don’t do that important thing – look at me instead!” Everyone take a deep breath. Steel yourself against the coming existential crisis: But what if somebody needs to get in touch with me RIGHT NOW because I’m so incredibly important?! and go into your email settings and turn off all notifications.
Check Your Email Twice Daily
If you think this is absurd, then absolutely no more than three times per day. If you still think this is absurd, then I would submit that the amount of time you spend checking email is the thing that is absurd.
This step will require you to send out an email or to have a conversation with your codependents. You’ll have to let them know that you’ll only be checking your email at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (or whatever times make the most strategic sense for you) and that if they have something truly important and urgent: 1) They should plan ahead better so they’re not always creating emergencies for others, and 2) They can reach you via telephone or by walking their lazy butt down the hallway to your cubicle. But be nicer than that when you have that conversation with them, because remember that you are breaking up a codependent relationship, so there could be some tears.
Next, you will have to institute a reward/punishment policy for yourself so that you stick to this rule. Put a dollar into a jar every time you check your email outside of the defined times. At the end of the week, give your jar to the person in your company you hate the most. Or rig up an electric shock machine – something serious that will quickly teach you the importance of not checking email more than twice daily. On days when you actually stick to the plan, congratulate yourself by booking a vacation to a tropical island – something serious that will quickly teach you the importance of sticking to the new schedule.
More than anything else, this one rule will send your productivity through the roof. Why? Because every time you open your email application, you spend roughly the same amount of time “working” in that application, regardless of how many emails you have waiting for you in there. If you open it and there are four new messages, you pause and look at each one. Perhaps you open them all – even the one that that contains an ad for fabulous sales on gorgeous camera lenses you’ll never be able to afford. You might even click on that ad, just to look at the lenses on sale, in case you win the lottery before the sale ends. But if you open your email and there are 26 new messages, you very quickly trash the fluff, open the rest and sort them into either “file for later” or “requires immediate action.” And then you get to work on the important ones.
Of course, if you have the kind of job where checking email is a happy distraction that helps you fill the hours you’re required to punch on someone else’s time clock, then you’ll probably want to keep your multiple accounts with their banners and badges and whistles. In that case, your inbox is not the issue.