Email can take up as much or as little of your day as you choose. How much time you spend on it is really a question of self-control, which is why it's crucial to devise a daily routine for checking email and to understand the obstacles that can throw you off course.
Once you have a system in place that works with your natural creative rhythms and sets expectations for those you work with, it becomes exponentially easier to stay focused and execute the tasks that really matter. Here's how to get started.
Start your day with meaningful work
Despite the fact that one in two people look at their email before breakfast, it is rarely productive to check your email first thing in the morning. In fact, it's usually counter-productive to start your day by letting other people's demands set your priorities. Instead, devote the first 60–90 minutes of your day to a task that advances your meaningful work goals. This way you are doing your most important and challenging work when your brainpower is at its peak rather than later in the day, when you're harried and your energy is depleted. It also means that when you do turn your attention to email, no matter what you find there-what fires you have to put out, what unwanted questions you have to respond to- you've already gotten some good work done that day.
Side note: If you must conduct your meaningful work in the afternoon due to immovable morning obligations, try doing a "reboot ritual" to clear your mind before you begin. Ten minutes of meditation, a brisk walk around the block, or a power nap are all good options.
Don't check your email more than two to three times a day
There are two types of emailers: reactors, who rely on notifications and near-constant monitoring of their inboxes to nibble away at their email throughout the day, and batchers, who set aside specific chunks of time to power through their email so they can ignore it the rest of the day. Not surprisingly, batchers are significantly more effective when it comes to getting shit done, and according to recent research, they’re also less stressed. To get yourself into the groove of batching, I recommend setting aside 30–60 minutes in the late morning and a similar amount of time in the mid- to late afternoon for checking email. Depending on the volume of email you receive, you might want to add a third and final email processing window at the close of your workday to tie up loose ends and leave work with a clear conscience.
Specify blocks of time for batch processing your email and put them on your calendar
By setting aside time on your calendar you explicitly commit to devoting a certain amount of energy to email. Because you have time set aside to process your inbox, it’s easier to move forward with other tasks, knowing that you’ll have time to tend to your email later. More importantly, it also requires you to commit to blocks of time when you are not checking email.
Extra credit: I would also recommend carving out blocks of time on your calendar for meaningful work, even if it’s just once a day first thing in the morning. If we don’t explicitly plan to do the work that matters, it tends to fall by the wayside. Putting something on your calendar means you are committing to it.
Treat your calendar time blocks like actual meetings
That means you show up, you start on time, and you finish on time. There may not be other people present at this “meeting,” but the point is to respect your time just as you would respect someone else’s at a meeting. If you’ve scheduled a block of time for meaningful work, give it all of your attention and effort. Don’t give up if it takes 10–20 minutes to get in the zone, and don’t be afraid to lock yourself in a conference room if necessary. Exercise the same discipline with your email blocks: when your scheduled time is up, stop checking your email and move on. This forces you to prioritize who you respond to and at what length—a useful skill.
Use VIP email notifications
If you’d like to stick to specific blocks of time for checking email but you have a special someone who will freak out if you don’t tend to their email within five minutes of receiving it, compromise by using VIP notifications. On an iPhone you can designate certain people as VIPs so their emails go to a separate VIP inbox. You can also configure your notifications to play a special tone when that inbox gets a message. If you have an Android phone, you can use the Gmail app to set up a similar system for notifications when messages arrive from predesignated priority senders. This method helps you ignore your email when you need to without worrying you’ll miss something crucial.
Avoid leaving your email open in the background
Research has shown that just having your email program open in the background of your computer screen as you focus on another task, even if the window is minimized, can decrease performance.15 Even if your email isn’t front and center, your brain still knows it’s there in the background and devotes a certain amount of energy to monitoring it, which takes away from your ability to truly execute the task at hand. Avoid such distractions by quarantining your email in a separate area from your main workspace. This might mean setting up a separate monitor just for email or checking your email only on a mobile phone or tablet. Checking your email in a physically separate space can actually make your incoming messages— and any attendant anxiety or urgency—feel more distant and less pressing. The more clear your primary work screen is, the more serene your mind is.
Mind the switching costs
Every time you stop doing a task you are working on to check your email, you incur what researchers call a “switching cost.” Particularly if you’re doing any kind of work that requires deep concentration (aka creative flow) such as writing, coding, or assembling a presentation, it typically takes at least 25 minutes to get properly back into the task after you’ve interrupted yourself. Even worse, multiple studies have shown that the more frequently you check your email, the less productive you are and the less happy you are. That’s a huge price to pay for a quick glance at your inbox.
Be aware that willpower declines over the course of the day
We do not have an infinite supply of willpower. Every time you exert your willpower during your workday, you have a little bit less left over. When it comes to email this means it becomes more difficult to resist the temptation to check it as the day goes on. It also becomes more challenging to make good decisions and compose messages as your best self. As willpower wanes, our email weaknesses loom large, and we risk giving in to our penchant for gossipy remarks, cutting sarcasm, dictatorial language, or a good old-fashioned flame war. The good news is that once you’re aware of the rhythms of willpower, you can use them to your advantage: try using your late-morning email block to respond to the messages that demand a maximum of craft and composure and your afternoon block to reply to relatively mindless emails.
Set expectations publicly
Once you’ve defined your email schedule, tell people about it. I cannot stress how helpful it is to openly discuss communication ground rules with bosses, coworkers, and clients before problems arise. Ask your boss how swiftly you need to respond to her emails—within 15 minutes? 60 minutes? 24 hours? outside of work? You may be surprised by her answer or you may be disappointed, but at least you’ll know. Share your work practices with coworkers so they understand how to best communicate with you and you with them, such as asking them to email you with nonurgent questions and come to your desk with urgent ones. Tell your clients upfront what kind of response time they can expect from you—for example, a same-day response on emails before 3 p.m. while their project is active—before they come to a different conclusion on their own. If you don’t want to be available on email at all hours, you need to proactively set expectations with others and stick to them religiously.
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