You can increase your productivity at work by getting enough sleep and by prioritizing your values, but there are also ways to become more efficient even while in the throes of email hell. Email is a necessary evil to doing business, even as other social or task management sites become more popular. There’s not much of a substitute for email yet, which is likely why the McKinsey Global Institute found that people spend 28% of each work week managing their inbox.
As much as we’d all like to decrease the amount of time we spend on email, actually doing so can be very difficult. A study conducted by The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm based in Palo Alto, Ca., found that about 107.8 billion emails were sent and received per day in 2014 for business-related purposes worldwide. That number is expected to grow to 139.4 billion emails per day by 2018. For individual business users, that breaks down to about 121 emails per day in 2014, a figure expected to climb to 140 emails per day by 2018.
So how do we tame the beast? You might already have an email system — or you’re desperately hoping to get a handle on one soon. Some of the most effective tricks to gaining control over your inbox, as suggested by experts, are a bit unorthodox. Here’s five tips for being more productive — both at work and at home — by approaching your email a little differently.
1. Don’t mix email with your morning coffee
In fact, don’t mix email with any first-thing-in-the-morning activities. Before you accuse us of utter heresy, hear us out. Checking your inbox right away in the morning, either from bed or on the commute to work, automatically sets you up to react to your day and doesn’t allow you to prioritize clearly.
David Finkel, co-author of the book Scale: Seven Proven Principles to Grow Your Business and Get Your Life Back, wrote in a post for Inc. that the first part of your day should be used for highly focused, email-free work. “Looking at the stats from our business coaching clients, odds are that if you check email early, you’ll have a high proportion of your days derailed by urgent, but low value fires that could have wait[ed] 1-3 hours for you to handle,” he wrote.
Not reacting to emails — however urgent they might seem at the time — can set you up for a calmer, more streamlined day. Tim Ferriss, author of the book The 4-Hour Workweek, explained to TIME how this works for him. “I try to have the first 80 to 90 minutes of my day vary as little as possible,” Ferriss said. “I think that a routine is necessary to feel in control and non-reactive, which reduces anxiety. It therefore also makes you more productive.”
We know how impossible this might sound. If you’re already feeling on edge because we told you to ignore the compulsions to check your email every five minutes, you’re not alone. A study of 205 adults conducted in 2012 found that work-related activities like checking email are more addictive than indulging your smoking or drinking habit.
We’re getting to how you satisfy your email fix (and the very real requirement to check your inbox). But resisting the urge to start with email can set you up for a more productive day overall.
2. Put email time slots on your calendar
You have to check your email sometime, but try to set up certain times of the day when you check your inbox, instead of having a steady stream of notifications. (That’s the other caveat to this tip: Notifications are a problem. Resist the urge to set them up on your desktop or phone, because chances are you’ll get sidetracked every time an email alert pops up.)
Having a routine throughout your day and sticking to it as much as possible leads to more productivity, Ferriss told TIME. “I encourage people to develop routines so that their decision-making is only applied to the most creative aspects of their work, or wherever their unique talent happens to lie,” he said. Set up a two-hour block of time, or shorter increments and more frequent points in the day, when you’ll check your inbox. Forbes contributor Jayson DeMers writes that if you’re still concerned about missing a critical email, set up an autoresponder that tells people when you’ll be checking your inbox, but also how to reach you by phone if the matter is truly urgent.
This might seem like a lot of work just to avoid an email or two that takes a few minutes to address throughout your day. While that might be the case, those minutes add up more quickly than you think. A study detailed by Gallup in 2006 is dated but contains crucial information found by researchers at the University of California, Irvine. When you’re interrupted during the work day, either from a phone call, email, or other item, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task you were originally completing. It might seem like a quick reply here or there, but those valuable minutes tick away quickly.
3. Spend the last section of your day triaging emails
When you only have a few minutes left of your work day, don’t spend every minute answering the emails that can wait until tomorrow. In an article about what successful people do with the last 10 minutes of their day, Business Insider found that they answer only the emails that are truly critical. “This is when your time management skills are put to the test,” Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert, told the website. “Successful people are able to decide what requires a response and what can wait.”
The last moments of your shift are not the time to go back and forth in an email exchange with co-workers about sensitive topics or problems that could take a while to solve. Taylor suggests setting up a specific time the next day to tackle the issue, when neither of you is feeling rushed and you’ve had time to think about solutions. While the end of a long day might never be the time to work on a large-scale problem, it’s definitely not the time to try to address it over email.
That said, there’s probably some loose ends at the end of each day that can quickly be addressed, or urgent matters that come up that require a response right away. Save your energy for those, and resolve to put the remaining emails on your do-list for the next day. If you find that you continually have to push emails off for tomorrow, though, it might be a good idea to expand the set times that you address email throughout the day. That way, it’s already built into your schedule.
4. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone
Email replaced a lot of the phone calls made on a daily basis for business operations, but that doesn’t mean that a phone call is completely out of the question. In fact, most times it’s still going to trump a lengthy email chain, and take half the time.
“If you’re involved in a frustrating back-and-forth conversation by e-mail due to hazy understanding on either side, just pick up the phone or speak in person,” Finkel advises in the Inc. column. The key is to eliminate fear, uncertainty, or doubt. If you can’t do that in a simple email or two, Finkel writes, it’s better to pick up the phone and follow up with an email afterward if necessary. This is especially important if you’re serving as a manager or team leader, when your point of view needs to be made crystal clear.
Avoid the potential for misunderstandings, especially about sensitive topics or business decisions, by being proactive and making the call instead. It will likely seem a little more time-consuming in the moment, but you’ll end up being more efficient in the long run. Your tone will be clear, as will your intention. You’ll also have the chance to tie up questions or concerns that could otherwise take another 10 emails or so.
5. Use email filters effectively
If you’re using an email platform like Gmail or Thunderbird, your inbox already contains built-in filters that you can customize to pre-sort your email. In other cases, you can set up commands to go to certain inbox folders. Use these tools to your advantage, DeMers advises in the Forbes post.
For one, filter critical emails into folders like “Requires response” and “Requires action.” This will likely be something you sort on your own, unless there are keywords in subject headings that will signal this automatically. This way, you only have to go to those folders at a certain time of day to know exactly which emails need action.
Beyond that, there are email rules you can set up that will streamline content. DeMers suggests putting all newsletters or email subscriptions in a “To Read” folder automatically, so that you can sift through them as you have the time. Emails that you’re only cc’d on might go into another folder, as you likely won’t have to take specific action on them. And finally, DeMers suggests filing all personal emails that come into your business account into another file to read later, too.
If your company uses the Gmail platform, blog posts like the one from Real Business give tips about how to effectively set up filters, any way you want them.
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