The number 2 distraction at work is emails. (Number one is other colleagues!)
Why is distraction a problem? Because it stops you getting what you REALLY need to get done.
In this article I list my top 10 tips for stopping email controlling your work life so that you can get done what matters.
Lots of these tips started life in the Tim Ferriss book 4 hour work week but have morphed for my way of working.
Hopefully they will help you too.
I don't like my inbox to have any more than 2 screen scrolls because I like to see my inbox clearly to spot any urgent requirements.
If you follow these rules you will be doing email for one hour a week on a Friday PM!
If you think these tips are unworkable in your organisation just try them for 1 day or just half a day and see if it causes a problem. If it doesn't extend the trial.
To help you develop the habit just pick one at a time to implement so you can monitor the effect.
If you adopt these operating procedures you will start to change email culture at your place of work and people will be coming up to thank you for years to come!
1) Do not open your email until you get that one thing you need to get done out of the way
If you could just do one significant action a day to move you towards your objectives you will be making more progress than most people.
The problem is we open our email and there are several messages that seem important and require action... and we go down the rabbit hole (again) .
To reduce the likelihood of distraction, decide on the way to work the one thing you want to get done that moves you closest to your objective.
Then get into work and take that action.
Then you can open the email client.
If this is too much of a risk you can open your inbox on your phone and just scan for any urgent emails. Don't be tempted to go down the rabbit hole if it is not urgent. Scanning your email will become much easier once you clean it up with these tips.
Some emails come into your inbox that you can deal with on a Friday PM or even in 1/2/3/4 weeks time. Scan down your inbox and highlight all the ones that can be done on Friday. Then manually - click and drag- move these emails types into a folder called: End of the week.
Do the same thing again with a folder called: End of next week , End of month etc..
Deal with these emails at a specific time each week. Put that in your diary. Make sure it is against the timer! (See below)
3) Batch process emails against a timer
Book out a time in the day to do emails only.
- The best time is 4pm because no one replies.
- If you think you need more than 1 hour a day to do email then choose 1pm and 4pm.
- Never do emails first thing because colleagues reply and it's email tennis from there on!
The timer adds a sense of urgency so that you are focussed on efficient replies- no filler.
When you see that the world does not fall apart doing emails for just one hour a day start to drill down by doing 30 mins a day.
Not all emails are created equally but they get the same space on your screen so you need to scan and process the ones which require attention
- Important and urgent- these are the ones you scan for and process.
- Important and not urgent (See tip 8 "Snooze" to deal with these)
- Unimportant; Make up 58% of mails. Bulk archive or delete!
This scanning will get much easier as you adopt these tips as you will have much less mail to deal with.
The search facility in emails is so good that you can find what you are looking for generally. I archive emails that I have no use for. .
The idea here is to stop emails coming in .. so do not get dragged into email tennis whatever you do!
If you could stop the email trail before it starts with one telephone call or even a meet over coffee then it is time well spent.
When you are batch processing your emails as above. Move email trails that would be settled forever with a call into a folder called "Calls Coffee" for example.
Then when it is a nice sunny day go out side go for a walk and make some calls. Talk and walk.
5) Tell people
Tell your colleagues that you are struggling with email overload and it is stopping you getting things done.
Or you could say that you are super busy with X project and "please don't email at the moment".
Do this face to face and they will think twice about emailing you. Do this in meetings and over coffee.
This will help to change email culture.
6) Use "out of office" to your advantage
If you are serious about reducing your inbox then trial putting the following in your 'out of office' message.
Title: In the office working flat out on X project.
Message: Dear colleague, thanks for your email. I am currently working flat out on X project. This is part of our organisational objective to do XYZ. As such I cannot currently respond to your email. If this is urgent please call [mobile]. If it is not urgent i will deal with your message on Friday PM if it is important. Thank you for your understanding and helping the organisation move towards XYZ.
I appreciate this is a tough action to take because there are all sorts of cultural issues around being at work, balancing lots of projects, replying to colleagues and working hard etc.
To implement this action just do it for one day at first or just a half day. You can then ask those people that emailed you what they thought about it. If the reaction was neutral or positive then trial it for 1 day a week. If the world does not fall apart increase to 2 days a week etc.
Colleagues will get to know how you feel and will be more likely to telephone you or talk about getting stuff done- or not email you with non important messages!
My good Pal Luke Hardy got in touch with me after I wrote this article and said
"When you go on holiday leave a out of office note which says;
I am going on holiday for a break from work to recover and recuperate so that I can be as effective as possible when i get back. I will not be answering any emails and i will delete any emails in my inbox on my return. If your message is critical please insert into my diary so we can catch up properly on my return on the [date]."
I think this is a great solution to email overwhelm when you get back from hols so that you can hit the floor running and be much more value to your colleagues!
Here’s an auto-reply email Josh Spector from For the Interested Newsletter received from a successful lawyer that’s a perfect example of how you can make your inbox work for you instead of the other way around.
Let me apologize — if you don’t get an immediate response.
My phone may be turned off.
I may be walking, and looking up, instead of down.
If you are curious — and this is a workday — feel free to call my office.
I may be in a meeting, or my “device” is on a “time out.”
In any event, I am trying to be less distractible, more deliberative, and more mindful.
I am hoping this will make us all more productive.
If you need me — and this is urgent, or timely — please call my office or my cell.
If this is a weekend, or an evening, and this is NOT urgent, let’s talk during the week.
If this is personal, call me, find me, see me — let’s talk not text.
Let’s try this.
7) Always be asking
If you are working on email outside of the scheduled bulk process times, try to ask yourself:
"Is working on uncontrolled non prioritised emails really the best use of my time right now?"
You can put this on a post it note above your screen now!
8) Go nuclear
If you have 100s or 1000s of emails in your inbox that are over 1 month old and you think you are going to deal with them...you're not.
If they have been there for that long they are not important. Just bulk archive.
If one month cut off is too short try a 3 month cut off.
The search facility is there for when that one person comes back to you in 6 months and says
"You know that email i sent to you that asked for X which would help me towards my objective of Y. Have you had time to do that thing?"
You then say
"Oh sorry i had not heard form you in x months and assumed that it was not critical. Thank you for helping me move towards my goals by understanding my need to prioritise"
(This works for bosses too!)
9) Learn about email filters and folders
This is the one action that can stop emails coming in and overwhelming you. Get this right and you will be in email heaven!
This action can remove a lot of clutter from your inbox and is a very good investment of time at the start of this crusade.
You can set up rules for how your inbox processes certain emails- the rules might be based on who sends the email, what words are contained within, what the subject line is etc etc
One filter you can set up which will take away and stop any sales or newsletter material is to set up a rule which filters for the word "Unsubscribe" and then sends that email into a newsletter folder (or deleting it).
You will want to keep our newsletter coming through so also use this filter to make sure we get through!
Other useful rules to keep your inbox clear might be:
- Make sure messages that you are CC'd into do not clog your inbox by setting a rule for them to go to a "CC" folder- which you can check periodically.
- System notifications. If you are the admin for any systems you will get regular messages. Filter for the source email and put those messages into a specific folder.
- We all shop online at work.. so you can filter out those emails too. Filter for the name of the online store, or for words like "receipt"
- Filter for "out of office" messages- move them into a folder called "out of office".
- Filter social media notifications from Twitter, Linkedin etc.
- If you use your inbox as a to do list by sending yourself messages- filter for your own email address into a folder called 'to do'!
Worthy mention: Manual filtering
You can create your own folders and move emails into them manually. This is especially useful for delegation. If you work in a small team or with the same people regularly you can move emails you want to delegate into folders with the colleagues name on. Then when you are ready to batch process- bulk forward the emails- or even better- have a chat about it!
Once a week or so you can run your eyes down the folders you have created to make sure that you stay on top of things.
With email filters just implement one at a time so you can learn as you go.
10) Turn off the email notification pop ups pings and zings
I have left this one to last, but I really should have put it first.
However this is the one of the most important.
Turn off your email notifications.
They only serve to distract you from what you are doing and no email needs to be replied to straight away- if they wanted a reply straight away they would have called. [BTW I turn off all notifications- pop ups and those little red buttons with the numbers in] for every service on my laptop and phone)
Just pick one of the above to start to implement and let me know how it goes.
1) In your email signature you can add
PS No need to reply to this email. We can catch up next time we meet or give me a call!
2) You can choose to do emails offline so that people do not reply and distract you.