I have a client who lives in the Pacific time zone, but her headquarters are in the Eastern time zone. In her company, emails start flying back and forth around 6 am, which is 3 am her time. Despite the insanity of it, she feels compelled to reply to emails during what was literally the middle of the night.
While you might not have the added stress of a time zone differential, many people struggle to handle emails in an efficient manner. A recent study from Microsoft indicates that email takes up roughly 35% of the average worker’s day! But taking some simple steps to manage your email effectively can take your productivity through the roof.
My client would often wake up in a panic, worried that she hadn’t heard her email notification on her phone and had missed something important. So she’s flying out of bed to check her email at 4 am, rarely being able to go back to sleep afterward. Her email—and the never-ending fretting about her inbox—was completely wrecking her sleep and controlling her day.
That’s a pretty extreme example—but a lot of salespeople are slaves to their email during all business hours (and perhaps all of their waking hours). But implementing just a few easy routines can allow you to take back your day.
Get Things Done
My guiding principles on email management come from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. Shane and I first adopted this methodology over 10 years ago. While the tools and techniques have adapted over the years, there are some key points that I still rely on today.
Take the Time
The biggest and most important step in overhauling how you approach your email management is to make time for it. If you don’t have more than two minutes to process your email, don’t even bother! Those rushed moments of reading emails in between meetings or tasks are the perfect opportunity to look at an email and think, “Oh, no big deal—I’ll do this later.” The problem is, the email is then marked as read and oftentimes you never see it or think about it again, so that task has completely fallen through the cracks.
You should have scheduled time each day to process your emails, and don’t deviate from it. “Checking” them all day long will ensure that you never really have time to focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. I like to start my day by processing my email and clearing my inbox. I give myself 30 minutes then and I also take 30 minutes in the afternoon to do the same. Some people like to add another session right before or after lunch as well. Find what works for you, but schedule it and stick to it!
When it comes time to actually process your email, the key is to speed through your inbox as quickly as possible. You don’t have to actually address or respond to every email (that will come later), you just want to make a quick decision about each one. Again, back to Getting Things Done—David Allen teaches us to use a four-pronged approach to evaluate and process emails in a way that ensures each one gets your full attention and is handled immediately. I’ll break them down below.
If you don’t need it, delete it! Don’t keep emails in your inbox because you think you might need them one day. When evaluating your emails, ask yourself honestly if this is something that applies to you and/or is something you really need. If you hesitate at all and it’s not a definite “yes,” then it’s a no. Delete (or Archive) it and keep moving!
This comes back again to focusing on your Income Producing Activities. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutia of your work day, but not every little thing deserves or needs your personal attention. If you read an email and it pertains to something that someone else could or should be doing for you, then forward it IMMEDIATELY (and then Archive it!).
This can be tough for a lot of people, but it’s vital. If you’re in the middle of checking emails and the task at hand is going to take you more than half an hour to complete, you need to defer it. Add it to a to-do list or open your calendar right then and schedule a time to get it done, but keep moving. Diving into a task in the middle of processing your emails is a one-way ticket to never getting to the bottom of your inbox.
If you’re processing emails and you know that you will have time available to complete the task once you get through your inbox, then go ahead and get it done! But do make sure you have ample time to complete the entire task in a focused manner before undertaking it. A good rule to remember: if it can be done in 2 minutes or less, do it right now.
Did you know it takes the average adult 90 seconds to recover from a distraction? If your email reminders are going off all day long, you’re constantly being distracted from the task at hand. A task that might typically take 30-60 minutes is now going to take you half the day because you were trying to do so many other tasks in the middle of it!
I know this may sound crazy, but I don’t have any notifications on my phone or computer. My phone lets me know if I get a call or a text—otherwise, all notifications are turned off. If that thought just made you panic, don’t worry, there are baby steps you can take. Start by turning off your notifications and make a promise to yourself that you will only check emails once you’ve fully completed a task. From there, you can work your way towards having just a few set times per day and only checking your emails then.
Power Tip: Turn off the bubble in your taskbar and apps that tells you how many unread emails are on your phone, computer, tablet, etc. Seeing that note all the time is only going to cause you stress. If I want to see how many unread emails I have, I have to open my mail app and refresh it. It’s then a purposeful action that I’m taking and not just an afterthought or a compulsion.
Master Your Task List
Don’t let your inbox be your to-do list. If you let your daily workflow be determined by whatever random emails are sitting in your inbox, you’re not really controlling your day, are you? Instead, you’re allowing other people to dictate how you spend your time. Ultimately, they’re putting things on your task list without your permission.
So look at your inbox, and you decide when you’re going to do things. Using a task organizer (at Skillway, we use Asana) is a great way to establish the process outside of your email and keep your to-do list orderly.
Believe me, I’ve heard all of the “Yeah, but Dew…”s you can imagine. And if you’re one of the 1 in 1,000 people who actually manage what you do based on client requests that come into your inbox, this blog post is not for you. If you’re in customer service, then your job is literally to answer emails on the spot. But if you weren’t hired to manage emails, then it’s time to stop letting them run your day.
Until next time—go sell some stuff!