If looking at your email inbox makes you want to take a sledgehammer to your computer or your smartphone, you’re not alone. A 2015 poll commissioned by software giant Adobe found that people spend more than six hours a day checking and responding to email. And in 2012 a report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that Americans spend 28 percent of their working hours managing job-related emails. That’s countless swathes of valuable time spent using a tool that’s supposed to make us more productive, not less. Efficiently managing email may seem like an insurmountable obstacle, but it doesn’t have to be. By employing a few key tactics, you can wrest back control of your inbox, and add back hours of real-life productive living and working to your routine.
Stop compulsively checking your email every five minutes.
Unless you’re waiting for a crucial message, checking email constantly is a distraction that cuts into productivity. According to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of California Irvine, it typically takes more than 20 minutes to get fully refocused on a task after taking a break to check email. A better solution is to check your email no more than once every 60 to 90 minutes. Even better is to check it just three times a day: morning, noon, and late afternoon or evening. And when you do check it, give yourself a set amount of time at each interval to read, respond to, and delete messages — say, 30 minutes. That way you won’t linger too long in your inbox.
Turn off email notifications.
Along with looking at your inbox less, shut down any type of email notifications you’ve set up. That means turning off desktop notifications, as well as beeps, blips, and buzzes that alert you when you receive new messages on your computer, phone or other mobile devices. These alerts are an unnecessary distraction and just tempt you to check your messages outside of your fixed email checking windows.
Send fewer emails.
It sounds stupidly simple, but consider whether you really need to send an email in the first place, or if you can get the same info you need via a phone call, or even walking over to a colleague’s desk and actually talking with him or her. Remember this simple rule: The less email you send, the less you’ll receive.
Make liberal use of “Unsubscribe.”
Thanks to having to input your email address all over the Internet (e.g., when online shopping, signing up for a running race, ordering flowers for your wife, etc.), your personal inbox is no doubt crammed with countless newsletters and offers you don’t want from stores and random organizations. Somewhere in those messages (usually at the bottom, and in tiny type) is a link to unsubscribe. There may be some lag between unsubscribing and actually stopping getting the emails, but once you’re off these lists, at least you’ll have fewer junk emails to sort through at the end of the day.
When reading and responding to email, use the two-minute rule.
A number of productivity experts are fond of the so-called two-minute rule when it comes to email. When going through your inbox (which, as you’ll recall, you’re now doing no more than once an hour) reply to any messages that will take no more than two minutes of your time, and then immediately delete or file them. Anything that’s going to take longer than two minutes, save for later by marking it as “unread” in your inbox, filing it in a “Needs Reply” folder, or hitting Reply and leaving the blank return message in your drafts folder. Then schedule a time later in the day or in the evening when you will tackle these messages that require more than two minutes of thinking and keyboard tapping. Once tackled, delete or move these messages from your inbox.
Use folders and labels and filter messages into them.
If you’re still leaving every message you receive crammed all together in your inbox, stop that right away. It’s overwhelming. Usually, the bulk of email comes from surprisingly few sources, and can be grouped into a few large buckets. Get a lot of mail from your family? Make a “Family” folder and set up your email client to automatically file messages from your parents and siblings in there, bypassing your inbox entirely. Do the same thing for messages from your basketball league, your wife, the doctor’s office, and everything you can think of. As these folders only contain messages related to one topic or aspect of your life, going through them daily should be less onerous. Just don’t overwhelm yourself with too many folders.
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