How to Conquer Your Email


Email … love it or hate it, it is there … it is always there.

It’s one of the great tools of the modern workplace, but its use has exploded.  Studies have shown that the average worker now checks their email 74 times a day.  That works out to once every 6.5 minutes during an average eight hour work day!  In my mind, email is the number one reason for lack of focus in the workplace and the biggest cause of switching cost.

Even worse, our use of email tends to be more reactive than proactive.  Productivity expert Greg McKeown says, “every time we check email, we’re checking somebody else’s agenda.”  Also, email multiplies.  We receive 1.75 emails in return for every 1 email we send.

So how do we deal with this relentless flood of email, proactively?

1) Send fewer emails

First, question if it is truly necessary to even send an email.  This is especially true with short one word replies (see don’t make REPLY your default email behavior).  Also, consider if a phone call or an in person meeting would be a better medium for the conversation (this is especially true for brainstorming, discussion, and topics that will produce a lot of back and forth).  The last thing you want to do is send an email that will produce eight responses from the same person in the same day.  That is a lot of wasted time that could have been taken care of in a 5 minute phone call.  Sending fewer emails is the most effective way to cut down on your number of emails.

2) Only reply to non-urgent email once a day

One of the best ways to send fewer emails is to only reply to non-urgent email once a day.  Spending a few minutes replying to email a couple times each day doesn’t sound terribly inefficient, but it creates a problem:  the email boomerang effect.  Each one of those emails you send will most likely produce  a reply.  The more you send, the more you get back.  Often times, you can have 5+ emails back and forth with the same person on the same topic in one day.  By only responding once a day, you avoid this scenario.

I recommend starting out by scheduling 60 minutes on your calendar every day to reply to email.  Eventually you should be able to get this down to 30 minutes.  When should you reply to email?  That’s easy … use your low energy time of day.  We already talked about how you should schedule your tasks based on your energy level.  Email is the perfect task to deal with during your low energy time of day.

But what’s the key to making this work and not stressing out about email? …

3) Triage your email throughout the day

I’m not going to tell you to only check email once a day, or to not check email in the morning (as suggested in Julie Morgenstern’s book, Never Check Email in the Morning).  Some people can do that, but I don’t think it’s realistic for most folks.  We simply worry too much about what’s lurking in our inbox, and worry can steal almost as much time as the act of just checking the darn inbox.  I think the key is to check email as often as you need to in order not worry about it — but make sure that isn’t every 20 minutes.  Personally, I check email about 4-5 times per day between meetings or large tasks.

But what I do during those checks is very important.  It’s a process I call my “email triage” and it’s designed to make sure that I’m not using that time replying to non-urgent emails.  During my email triages I do three things and ONLY three things:

1) Delete spam, unwanted newsletters, one word replies, unnecessary FYIs, etc.
2) Move items that I will reply to / deal with / process later (during my next scheduled email reply session) to another folder
3) Send quick replies to truly urgent items (give the person what they need now, send more detail later – if necessary)

Email triages should take no more than five minutes.

4) Turn off email notifications

Finally, now that you have a system in place to make email proactive, you can turn off the one thing that still makes it reactive: email notifications.  You’re now checking, triaging and replying to email on your terms; therefore, a notification that you have a new email serves you no purpose.  So turn them off and keep your focus where it should be — on the task at hand.

These four steps will lead to a dramatic improvement in productivity.  The amount of time you can regain by taking these steps is larger than perhaps any other productivity practice that I recommend.  So please give it some serious consideration and conquer your email.