Time Management Tips — Managing email so it doesn’t manage you

Email as a business communication tool has taken the world by storm over the last decade.   Over that time it has continuously encroached on more and more of our life to the point that now for many the first thing you do when you get up and the last thing you do before going to sleep is power up your smart phone to check and see what emails have arrived.

The constant connection helps us keep connected to the pulse of work but in many respects leads to an increased level of stress.  Here are three tips for email management (some easier than others) that I have personally adopted which make a huge difference.

Turn off the new mail alert indicator (Quick and Easy but a Big Impact)

You know what I mean, that little icon in the system try that lets you know that you have mail or the even more noticeable “New Email Notification” popup in Microsoft Outlook which gives you a little preview of the message.  At first thought, you would think this would be good but take a second to think about it.  Every time you see that alert, your mind immediately starts to think, “I just received something — I wonder what it is?”.  In a lot of ways it is like getting a birthday gift, you have to stop and open it to see what you received.

These interruptions may seem to take just a second to look at but reality (and research) shows that little distraction takes your focus away from what you were working on and as a result, it can take five minutes to get back to where your mind was before the interruption.

Action Step Turn off the indicator for a week and see if you miss the interruption.  This is the simplest thing you can do to have a huge impact on your productivity.

Check your email only 3 times a day

This might sound impossible, but after initially trying it for a few days it has become a standard routine for me.  In my routine, I now check all my email (business and personal accounts) at 8 am and 3 pm, and my business email right after lunch.  Outside of those times I have my email closed on my computer.  It is amazing what this has done for my productivity — it allows me to focus on the most important task without getting sucked into the latest topic.

The biggest concern that I hear from people is that they could never do this because they get emails that they need to respond to immediately.  My question to them is if it is really life or death that they respond within four hours.  Unless your main job is to respond immediately to customer service requests, I would argue that the business need to respond immediately isn’t required.  The individuals still have your phone number that they can call if they need you immediately.  Just let people know you focus your email to only certain times and they will quickly understand and adjust accordingly.

Action Step For the next week, choose three times during the day you are going to read and respond to emails and then turn off the program in between.  You will go through a mild form of withdrawal at first but that will lessen with time.

Empty your inbox at least once a day

I realize this sounds impossible at first but with focused effort it is possible and once you are at zero and have your routine in process to keep it going you will be amazed.  A large productivity issue occurs when you read an email and then let it sit in the inbox.  That causes you to reread the same message three to five times on average before you act on it.  What I have found easiest is to ask myself as soon as I read a message this question —  “What is the next thing I have to do with this email?”  It could be filing it, asking a clarifying question, scheduling time to work on it or deleting it.  Any one of those four options will result it in moving out of my inbox.

This tip is the hardest of them all but the peace of mind it brings is amazing.  You no longer have to worry what is buried in the inbox that you may be missing.  Even if you are not able to get to zero right away, the small step of asking yourself what is the next thing you need to do for each message when you read it the first time will improve your productivity.

Action StepDuring the next week, whenever a new message arrives, ask yourself what is the next step you have to take for that message.  Just this step will keep your inbox from growing any larger and hopefully will give you time back to go and take care of some of the messages already in your inbox.

These are just some of the tips that have really helped me improve my productivity and implement a process where email is not controlling me.  A great book that I highly recommend is “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.  It is a fantastic read and has many additional tips to improve your productivity.