One of the simplest ways to be more productive during working hours is to reduce the time you spend on maintenance tasks such as checking your email. These tasks break your concentration on more important work, and a recent study from UC Irvine suggests that checking your email less often can help reduce stress and raise your level of concentration at work.
Yet many people's first response to the suggestion that they check their inboxes less often is, "Oh, I'd be fired if I ever tried that." For most of us, email is the primary form of communication in our personal and professional lives. Ignoring it for most of the day seems like a recipe for disaster--and if you simply deleted everything and closed your email account, it probably would be.
However, by approaching email management strategically and learning a few tips and tricks, most people can get away with checking their email just once or twice a day and yet not miss any important information. Sound impossible? Here are the steps you can take to master your inbox and keep email from taking over your life.
Clean Out Your Inbox
The first step toward taking control of your email life is to clear out your backlog. It's bad enough when you're constantly checking for new email, but many of us also obsessively look back through our inbox to confirm that we didn't miss an important task buried somewhere in 100+ unread messages.
The way out is to to go through your unread email and take some action on each and every message, even if it consists of deleting the message as no longer relevant. Performing this task can be a lot of work, but it will save you time in the long run by taking email messages off of your mind. Sorting your email should also give you a better sense of your personal email management patterns: After looking through your email history, you'll know who expects a response, when you ought to get back to them, and what is likely to arrive in your inbox soon.
In extreme cases you might consider declaring an email amnesty and marking all unread messages as dealt with. If you go this route, it's a good idea to send a mass email to your coworkers informing them, so that they can send you a polite reminder about projects they're waiting to hear back from you on.
Thankfully, most people won't need to take such extreme measures and should be able to reconcile their inbox in a few hours. For further guidelines on strategies for saving time while cleaning out a backlog of old email, read "Get Your Inbox Back to Zero."
Organize and Automate Your Email
Once you've wrangled your collection of old email into shape, it's time to start preparing for the future. You'll want to organize incoming messages as efficiently as possible; otherwise, your less frequent email checks will become marathon sessions of responding to messages.
Start by organizing your inbox into folders based on who sent you a message and why. Once you've set up appropriate folders, you'll want to filter incoming mail into them automatically, so that you can tell at a glance which messages will need a response.
For a general idea about how email filters work and for specific tips to use with Gmail, check out "How To Guide to Using Gmail Filters"; unfortunately, with the large number of email apps and services available today, it's impossible to cover setting up filters for every email solution you might use. If you run into trouble configuring your email to filter messages automatically, consult your IT department.
You also need to turn off quite a few automated features, if you can. Step one is to make sure that your email client of choice has notifications turned off. Ideally you ought to disable push notifications on your phone and other devices as well. It may seem handy to have your phone or tablet reminding you when you receive new messages, but it can be very distracting, and you don't need regular reminders about email that you weren't going to check anyway.
Similarly, you should set your mail client of choice to check for messages less frequently. Ideally the client wouldn't check for new mail more often than you do, but even cutting it down to once an hour or so should greatly improve your productivity. Of course, some mail clients (like Gmail) automatically check for new mail as long as the tab is open. You can eliminate this distraction by turning off Gmail's notifications under general settings or by closing your Gmail window when you aren't actively using it.
Now that you have an empty and self-organizing inbox, you can check your email client once or twice during the workday and still respond to 95 percent of your important email conversations. Sometimes, though, even that level of inbox austerity isn't enough to prevent you from wasting hours a day reading and responding to email; if you're getting hundreds of mission-critical email messages a day, you may have to resort to stronger measures.
If you work with an especially high volume of email or have coworkers who expect swift responses that are possible only with an "always online" messaging system, you may need to address expectations explicitly. Set up an auto-responder that lets your coworkers know about your new and improved email schedule. The Gmail Vacation Responder (located in the Gmail General Settings menu) is a great tool for this purpose. Just set the responder up with an automated message for a week or two and let it get the word out about your new productivity strategy. Gmail even lets you arrange to send the message only to people on your contact list, meaning that it will specifically target coworkers and friends who need to know about your email boundaries.
Make sure to leave some form of emergency contact channel open at all times (a phone line, say, or an instant messaging client) in case contacting you before your next inbox check is critically important; even so, if you follow our inbox tips, you'll be surprised at how few problems arise from your waiting a few hours or (in some cases) days before responding to a specific email message.
Once you've established your new boundaries, remember to respect the boundaries of others. If you don't email your coworkers at night or on weekends about work-related tasks, they're more likely to respect the email schedule that you've set up for yourself. By making your inbox more efficient you can save an hour or two every day; use that time to get more done!