March 3, 2021

The Smart Way To Deal With Email

Take control of your inbox in less than an hour a day

The average knowledge worker spends over a quarter of their workday (28%) in their email inbox. That’s roughly two hours per day.

Anecdotally, people I know say they spend 25-33% of their working hours in their inbox. There’s no way that is the best use of their time.

Even though I get more emails than most of them, I spend no more than one hour a day on it. It all comes down to how efficiently you manage your inbox. Everyone I spoke to seems to fall into the trap of one or more common bad practices when managing email.

Personally speaking, I see it as a necessary evil that interrupts me from my day and distracts me from higher-value tasks and deep work. To minimize the disruption caused by email, I have thought long and hard about how best to manage it. Over time, I have developed a system that allows me to process my email quickly and efficiently. 

I have never met a single person who wishes they spent more time on email, so I thought I would share my process with you.

How to process your email in minutes instead of hours

1. Use other systems to take the pressure off your inbox. This immediately reduces the volume of email you receive. It also speeds up your general workflow. People respond with the information you need more quickly in Slack/Teams than they do over email. A phone conversation can solve in five minutes what may have taken a few days going back-and-forth over email. As Ryan Holiday quips; 

“Email is great for staying on top of things but terrible for getting to the bottom of things.”

2. Turn off notifications to avoid the real-time distraction of incoming messages. This is possibly the most critical thing to implement. According to this study, people typically receive 96 business emails per day. This study puts the figure at 121. So, if you see a pop-up notification in the corner of your screen every time you receive a new email, your attention is getting hijacked around 100 times per day. That’s insane. Unless you work in customer services and must respond quickly to incoming emails, there is no need to have your notifications on. Switch them off.

3. Batch process your inbox. With your notifications turned off, you are now free to choose when you deal with your email. I use 3x 20min blocks each day. Once at the start of the day, in case someone needs a response so they can get something done that day, once after lunch before I get stuck into more meaningful work for the afternoon, and once at the end of the day to tie up loose ends. 

4. Write out a set of common replies and use a text expander app like Phrase Express to create keyboard shortcuts for them. You can then paste these standard replies into your message with just a couple of keystrokes and tailor them as required. This saves lots of time compared to writing common replies from scratch each time or finding a response you have previously written in your sent items then copying and pasting it.

5. Cut out the formality and get to the point. There’s no need to format your emails like a letter. It’s 2021. Format your emails like text messages and keep them as concise as possible (AKA emailing like a CEO).

6. Be ruthless about what you do and don’t reply to. I once ready a study that said you get 1.7 emails back for every email you send. I’ve seen other studies that claim almost double that figure. The exact number doesn’t really matter. The point is that the more emails you send, the more you will receive. Not all emails are created equal, and not every email requires a response, so aim to send as few replies as possible. There’s no need to reply out of politeness if you are not adding valuable information and moving the conversation forward.

General email management advice

Never get sucked into email chains, checking your inbox several times a day, or reading emails more than once. Use a read-once approach by responding to them as soon as you read them and deleting them right away whenever possible. If you receive an email that requires a more considered response and you can’t respond to it when you read it, schedule that response as a task, archive the original email, and respond to it during your next scheduled email session.

Don’t store emails in an elaborate folder system. It creates unnecessary clutter and makes emails harder to find. Email apps have powerful search functions, so take advantage of them. The most efficient, elegant way to store emails you don’t delete because you may need them in the future is to archive them. Archiving emails removes them from your inbox and stores them tidily away in an archive folder. The contents of this folder show up in searches. So if someone follows up on an archived message, it automatically pops back into your inbox. I was guilty of using a folder structure for years until I discovered the powerful simplicity of archiving, and I would never go back to those dark old days now.

A word on inbox zero. There’s no such thing, so don’t stress yourself aiming for it. A steady stream of emails is continually arriving in your inbox. There is no final end boss email that ends the stream once it has been dealt with. Once you clear your inbox, there will always be another email about to appear. Often before you have even had a chance to close your email client. Instead, just deal with one day’s emails at a time, then you will never have a backlog to clear. 

One way to put a hard stop on the amount of email you send each day is to use a method favored by the late Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, which he called “Yesterbox.” With this method, you only respond to the emails you received the previous day. Once you have caught up with them, you are done with email for the day. 

I love this idea and have recently started experimenting with it. It is early days, but its working for me so far. Outlook allows you to collapse and expand your inbox view by date, making it easy to set up so that you only see yesterday’s messages. That makes this approach a particularly elegant solution for Outlook users. Combining Yesterbox with archiving may be how I learn to love email again.

The thing to remember with email is that whatever is in your inbox is usually other people’s priorities, not your own. While unread messages may seem urgent, they are rarely important. Using an Eisenhower matrix, we know that important tasks should be prioritized over less important urgent tasks. This means that email should no be prioritized over your key objectives for the day.

To tame your email monster, put it in its place by scheduling set times of day to deal with it, then forget it about for the rest of the day. This may require some self-discipline and management of people’s expectations. But once you stop email from running rampant over your day, you will find yourself free to focus on high-value work that drives your business forward as a result.