Five Ways To Stop Living In Your Inbox

Nowhere in my job description does it say “process, reply to and delete email.” So why, like many office workers, am I expected to spend so much time in my inbox? Originally intended as a time saver, email is a huge productivity killer for anyone who has to deal with it every day. But how do you make it work for you?

the box - cameron diaz

I’ve spent a lot of my career fighting against email. From giving in and letting it become the driving force behind my todo list, to only reading it a couple of times a day, I’ve tried plenty of different approaches to taking control of my inbox.

Here are my top five tips for making sure you’re in control of your email, not the other way round:

1. Process email twice a day (at most)

Email was designed to replace physical letters and in-office memos. As such, it shouldn’t be regarded as an immediate form of communication. For those of us who’ve been conditioned by office environments where people have their mail client open all the time, it can be difficult to get our heads round; you don’t have to respond to an email as soon as it lands in your inbox.

In terms of email etiquette, if you’re replying to emails within 24 hours of receiving them then you shouldn’t have any issues. Anyone who requires an answer more quickly than that should get in touch with you another way. Email isn’t a replacement for the phone or for face-to-face conversations.

Process your email twice a day, at most (I’d recommend mid-morning and / or mid-afternoon) and make sure everyone begins to learn that they won’t get an instant response if they need to. I’d even go as far as sending an “out-of-office” message to anyone who emails you explaining your approach and suggest they ring you if they require an urgent response.

2. Ignore emails that aren’t actionable

How many of you waste your time reading emails that are for information only? Why? If you cut out all emails that aren’t actionable, you could save yourself hours a week that could be better used for actually getting things done. There’s no point wasting your valuable time with “stuff” that you’re never going to do anything with.

Personal effectiveness evangelist Scott Hanselman has one simple hack that will reduce the amount of time you spend on email substantially; don’t read anything you’re cc’d on. According to Brian Tracy, 80% of the email you receive has absolutely no value whatsoever; of the messages that do have value, only a small percentage actually require action. To stop living in your inbox, you need to create a system that means those important messages are the only ones you focus on.

Create a filter in your email client (here’s how to do it in Gmail) that dumps all your cc’ed messages into their own folder. You’ll be amazed how much time you’ll save. To start with, schedule time in your week to look through your cc’d folder for anything that has value. You’ll soon realise that there’s very little of interest there. I don’t even read emails I’m copied in to; if they’re important, I’ll find out anyway.

3. Unsubscribe from unhelpful mailing lists

Mailing lists feel like an easy way to stay up-to-date with your favourite websites, blogs and social media accounts without having to leave your inbox. Really, though, they’re just another time-waster. Be honest, how many newsletters you subscribe to actually have worthwhile content? And how much of that could you have found with a simple Google search?

Unsubscribing from all but the most useful newsletters will save you hours each day. Use services like Unroll.me and get rid of everything that you’d normally just archive; are you really interested in the latest updates from every website you’ve ever bought something from?

Unlike a lot of productivity writers, I’m not advocating unsubscribing from everything. Used properly, newsletters and other email subscriptions can actually save you time. For example, I don’t log into LinkedIn every five minutes to check my notifications; I wait until I get my daily round-up of what’s been going on. The same goes for some of my favourite blogs and websites.

4. Don’t answer email first thing in the morning

If you want to get nothing done, start sending email before starting work on your todo list. Email is one of the biggest time thieves out there; don’t lose your day by delving into it before you’ve had a chance to work on your most important tasks. Avoiding email for as long as you can each day will dramatically boost your productivity.

I open my email client first thing in the morning and quickly scan it for anything that requires urgent action. By that, I mean “end of the world”-type stuff; not emails from people with no patience. After that, I don’t look at my email again until lunchtime, when I process it to inbox zero.

The quickest way to get more email is to start sending it. If you’re responding to email until later in the day, you’re giving yourself a window to be productive. Remember the 80/20 rule; 20% of your workday will produce 80% of your results. Make sure you’re using your morning hours to get things done. Your inbox can wait.

5. Kill all email notifications

Email is not SMS; you don’t need to respond as soon as something lands in your inbox. Email, as its name implies, should be treated a bit more like physical mail. Process it at times that are convenient for you, and resist the urge to jump on incoming messages straight away.

The easiest way to loosen email’s stranglehold on your attention is to ditch any notifications on your phone, desktop or anywhere else they’re begging to be noticed. If you’ve followed some of my other tips and created a workable email processing routine, then notifications serve no purpose other than to distract you from what you’re currently working on.

Go into your phone’s settings and kill all notifications for email. Better still, dumb down and delete your email app completely if you can. We all managed perfectly well when we had to log into our desktop or laptop to check our messages; why do we feel the urge to keep it in our pockets as well?

What do you think? How much of your workday is spent reading and responding to email? Let me know in the comments.