One of the simplest ways to be more productive during working hours is to reduce the time you spend on maintenance tasks like checking your e-mail. These tasks break your concentration on more important work, and a recent study from UC Irvine suggests that checking your e-mail less often can help reduce stress and raise your level of concentration at work.
Yet whenever anyone suggests we check our inboxes less often, our first response is often "Oh I'd be fired if I ever tried that." For most of us, e-mail 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 of course if you simple delete everything and close your e-mail account entirely it probably will be.
Still, by approaching e-mail management strategically and learning a few tips and tricks most people can get away with checking e-mail just once or twice a day without missing any important information. Sound impossible? Here are the steps you can take to master your inbox and keep e-mail from taking over your life.
Clean Out Your Inbox
The first step to taking control of your e-mail life is to clear out your backlog. It's bad enough when you're constantly checking for new e-mail, but many of us also obsessively look back through our inbox to make sure we didn't miss an important task buried somewhere in 100+ unread messages.
You need to go through your unread e-mail and take some action on each and every message, even if that's just declaring it no longer relevant and deleting it. This can be a lot of work, but it will save you time in the long run as those e-mails will finally be off of your mind. Sorting out all your e-mails should also give you a better sense of your personal e-mail management patterns: after looking through your e-mail history you'll know who's expecting a response, when you ought to get back to them and what's probably going to arrive in your inbox soon.
In extreme cases you might want to consider just declaring e-mail amnesty and marking all unread messages as dealt with. If you decide to go this route, send a mass e-mail out to coworkers letting them know so 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 tackle their inbox in a few hours. For further guidelines on strategies for saving time while cleaning out your old e-mail,s check out our guide to helping you Get Your Inbox Back to Zero.
Organize and Automate Your E-Mail
Once you've wrangled your old e-mails into shape, it's time for you to start preparing for the future. You'll want to organize your incoming messages as efficiently as possible, otherwise your less frequent e-mail checks will become marathon sessions of responding to e-mail.
The first step is organizing your inbox into folders based on who sent you an e-mail and why. Once you've gotten folders set up that work for you you'll want to automatically filter incoming mail so that you can tell at a glance which e-mails will need a response.
For a general idea of how e-mail filters work and specific tips for use with Gmail you can check out our How To Guide to Using Gmail Filters, but with the large number of e-mail apps and services available today it's impossible to cover setting up filters for every e-mail solution you might use. If you run into trouble configuring your e-mail to automatically filter messages, consult your IT department.
There are also quite a few automated features you should turn OFF if at all possible. Make sure your e-mail 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 get new e-mail, but it's really just another distraction; you don't need regular reminders of e-mail you weren't going to be checking anyway.
Similarly, you should set your mail client of choice to check for e-mail LESS frequently. Preferably your mail client shouldn't be checking for new mail more often than you are, but even cutting it down to once an hour or so should do wonders for your productivity. Of course, some mail clients like Gmail are automatically check for new mail as long as you have the tab open. You can eliminate this distraction by turning off Gmail's notifications under general settings or simply closing your Gmail window when it isn't in use.
Now that you have an empty and self-organizing inbox, you can check your e-mail client once or twice during the workday and still respond to 95 percent of your important e-mail conversations. But sometimes even that level of inbox austerity isn't enough to keep you from wasting hours a day reading and responding to e-mail; if you're getting hundreds of mission-critical e-mails a day, stronger measures may be necessary.
If you work with an especially high volume of e-mails or have co-workers who expect the kind of swift response that only come from our "always online" culture, you may need to set expectations explicitly. Set up an auto-responder that lets your coworkers know about your new and improved e-mail schedule. The Gmail Vacation Responder (located in the Gmail General Settings menu) is great 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 strategy. Gmail even lets you set the responder to only send the message to people on your contact list, so it will only target coworkers and friends who need to know about your e-mail boundaries.
Make sure to leave some form of emergency contact channel open at all times (like a phone line or instant messanging client) in case your coworkers really need to contact you before your next inbox check, but if you follow our inbox tips you'll be surprised how often you can safely wait a few hours or even days before responding to a specific e-mail message.
Once you've gotten your boundaries established, remember to respect them for others. If you don't e-mail your coworkers on evenings or weekends about work-related tasks they're more likely to respect the e-mail schedule that you've set up for yourself. By making your inbox more efficient you can save an hour or two every day, so use that time to get more done!