You'd think with all the social media tagging, DMs and texting we do today, that we'd spend less time with email. And if you were asked how much time you think you spend dealing with, worrying about and actually writing out emails, you'd more than likely underestimate the number.
According to a recent study by Adobe, workers spend on average 2.5 hours a day dealing with their inbox. Most of us start our morning by scanning our inbox and then check it throughout the day—and according to the study, we also check it while we're on the phone, in the bathroom and even at the gym before and after working out.
It's clear that email isn't going anywhere. And while it remains an enduring workplace tool, few of us would say that our time spent in the weeds of our inbox is very productive. Which is precisely why we tend to fall into one of two camps. Some devote the majority of their day to the productivity promise of clearing and filing everything—a goal known as Inbox Zero. While the rest of us basically say "fuck it," and watch as our inboxes grow out-of-control like a dangerous wildfire.
If you let your email inbox runneth over, you run a very real risk of missing important news, blowing deadlines and neglecting friends or colleagues. And then there's the overwhelming feeling of dread and discouragement that comes with hundreds of messages waiting for you. But if you're constantly chasing Inbox Zero, you'll syphon away much of the time you should spending doing actual work. When Babson College and Wharton analyzed worker's time, they discovered that most employees spend close to 80% of their day responding to emails or in meetings. Who can do their best work when you're only left with 20% of your day to focus on it?
Like so many things, moderation is key. Having an inbox that's current and uncluttered is important and valuable, but spending too much time keeping your inbox at zero throughout the day will only waste precious time and distract you. Here are six ways to optimize your time and manage your emails like a boss.
According to organizational expert David Allen of Getting Things Done fame, "Anything you can deal with in less than two minutes—if you're ever going to do it at all—should be done the first time you see it," he says. "It takes longer to read it, close it, open it, and read it again than it would be to finish it the first time it appears." Then simply file or delete the email and move on. If a message requires more thought or action than two minutes, make a plan (add it to your to-do list, create a calendar reminder, etc.) and then file the email into the appropriate folder. When you need the email again, you'll know just where to find it instead of having to scan your inbox.
Utilize smart email extensions
Boomerang is an extension for Gmail, Outlook and mobile devices that can help send and receive emails efficiently, saving you both time and stress. It's essentially a virtual personal assistant, helping you keep everything straight and organized. You can schedule emails to send at optimal times, snooze messages you'd like to get to later, get a reminder if your email doesn't get a reply. And if you're waiting for a response, you can have it send follow up reminders so things don't fall between the cracks.
Don't Ignore Emails
"It sends a signal that you're disorganized—or that you just don't care," says Adam Grant, the author of Originals and host of the TED podcast WorkLife. "If you're just hopelessly behind on your inbox, at least set up an auto-reply giving people another channel where they can reach you—a Slack channel, Twitter, a phone number." Remember that a short reply is kinder and more professional than none at all. Plus, it will keep you from the building anxiety and guilt of knowing that you owe people responses.
Schedule dedicated email time
Weeding through your inbox and writing out a few quick emails won't typically take the same effort as other, more important work. So why spend your most productive and energetic hours on email? Similar to our Circadian Rhythm's sleep schedule, our bodies have Ultradian Rhythms—sessions of alertness which last anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours before our mind needs a break. Once you understand when you're low on energy and creativity, schedule such low-impact activities like responding to emails.
Turn off all (or almost all) notifications
Okay, if this is unrealistic because you've got a demanding boss or clients that can't wait, set those VIPs as the only email notifications that are allowed to pop up on your screen or phone. Otherwise, these arbitrary alerts simply distract you and pull you into dealing with your inbox when you should be focused on whatever it is you're doing. They also serve as nagging reminders that your inbox is filling up.
Be diligent about unsubscribing and filtering
Sure, it takes time to unsubscribe from email lists and newsletters, but if they're not of interest to you, it will be a big time saver and worth the time investment in the long run. And for those emails that you don't need to read but would like to still be subscribed to, set up filters within your email program to file them away for you. For instance, set up a folder labeled "offers and discounts" and have the emails sent from your favorite stores and restaurants filtered to go straight into that folder. That way, when you're ready to make an order, you can check to see if there are any valid discount codes. Or have your credit cards or bank emails go directly into their respective folder so you don't have to worry about sorting them.