Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes, 36s (but it’s skimmable).
If you’re average, chances are you spend more than one quarter of your time at work on email.
According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, the average employee spends 2.6 hours every day on email—that’s equivalent to 28% of your work day, and this study was conducted in 2012; I wouldn’t be surprised if that number has gone up since.
But not only does email suck up a ton of your time; it also sucks up a ton of your attention. The other week I asked a few of my coaching clients to tally how many times a day they automatically checked for new email messages, and the average between them was a whopping 41 times. In other words, their attention was derailed from what they were supposed to focus on 41 times over the course of the day.
With email being such a huge productivity pain point, I’ve gathered together my 10 favorite email hacks that I know will help you tame your email inbox. Over the last few years I’ve encountered countless email hacks—some that have worked, and even more that haven’t. These are my 10 favourites of the bunch, and I use (and can vouch for) every single one of them.
1. Keep a tally of how many times you check your email every day for a week
When you keep a food diary and track everything you eat, studies show that you eat up to a third less.1
The same holds true with checking your email—when you keep a tally of how many times you check your email over the course of a day, you not only become more aware of the sheer number of times you check for new messages (and can work over time to decrease that number), but you also check for new messages a lot less. Some people recommend scheduling time where you check your email, but from my experience (and the experience of the people I have talked to), that hardly ever works. Keeping a tally of how often you check your email works the best, and working over time to decrease that number will allow you to save your time and attention for much higher-return tasks.
2. Keep all of your emails to five sentences or less, and make a note of it in your signature
One of my favorite email hacks is to keep every email message I send to five sentences or less, and make a note of it in my signature. If I need to send a longer response, I simply call the person I’m responding to, when I can.
To my surprise, most folks didn’t mind receiving emails from me after I started using this hack, especially since it took me way less time to respond to new messages. Naturally, your mileage may vary depending on where you work.
Everyone likes a person who gets to the point quickly, and keeping your messages to five sentences or less forces you to do just that. It’s also a great cue to invest in relationships with your friends and coworkers when you need to give a more detailed response, and it leads to a lot fewer misunderstandings.
3. Don’t check for new email unless you have the time, energy, and attention to deal with whatever might come in
The problem with checking for new email messages habitually is you often don’t have the time, energy, or attention to deal with what might come in, so you just waste your time when you do so.
I think this is also the reason you shouldn’t check your email first thing in the morning: when you wake up, you usually don’t have the energy or attention to deal with new email messages, so you just stress yourself out and let email take control over your day.
Before you check for new email messages, ask yourself whether you have the time, energy, and focus to deal with what might come in, and only check for new messages if you do.
4. Register for Unroll.me with your Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook.com account When you register for Unroll.me with your Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook.com account, the service rolls up all of your subscription emails into one convenient, daily email, and it’s totally free. The service also lets you quickly view everything you’re subscribed to, so you can unsubscribe from any mailing lists you regularly receive with just one click. Unroll.me is one of my favorite services out there, and I highly recommend it.
5. Quit organizing your email into folders
A recent study conducted by IBM asked the question: what takes less time, searching through your inbox to find a buried email, or organizing your email into folders?
It turns out that searching through your inbox is way faster. On average, it took participants 66.07s to search for an email, and 72.87s to find an email in a folder—but these times don’t take into account the time a user spent sorting their email in the first place!
Even if you have a complex email organizational system, chances are searching through your inbox is way faster than sorting your email.
6. Follow the “Yesterbox” technique
The “yesterbox” email technique is simple: rather than aiming to totally clear out your email inbox at the end of each day, you simply answer yesterday’s email today (and today’s email tomorrow). Every message gets a one day delay unless it’s so urgent that you absolutely have to deal with it right away, and yesterday’s email simply becomes your to-do list for today. The technique also lets you see at a glance how much work and email you’ll have to tackle tomorrow.
The technique may not work with your work email, but I use the technique to stay on top of my personal email. It’s a great way to regain control over your inbox and not be pulled around by whatever emails you happen to receive throughout the day.
7. Shut off email alerts
Email alerts don’t cost you a ton of time, but they cost you a lot in attention—every time you receive one, the alert hijacks your attention away from what you’re working on.
When you shut off email alerts, you can bring a lot more attention to what you’re working on in the moment, and dedicate more of yourself to whatever you’re working on without your attention being hijacked when your aunt sends you kitten pictures.
8. Wait a bit before sending important messages
I think it’s worth waiting as long as would be socially responsible before sending important email messages.
This tactic may sound obvious, but when you wait before responding to important messages, you’ll not only save yourself from sending a ton of emails back and forth with someone, you’ll also give your mind time to collect and form thoughts so you can make what you say more complete, valuable, and creative.
9. Schedule sending emails in the future
There are several email plugins that will allow you to type up a response to an email now, but delay sending the message until a later date and time that you specify.
These plugins not only give you a way to wait before sending important messages, but also help you manage other people’s expectations (like that you don’t respond to email right away, or outside of business hours). Here are my favorite send-later plugins for Gmail, Apple Mail, Outlook, and Android.
10. Declare an email holiday
When an old coworker of mine needed to hunker down and get something important done, she would set up an email auto-responder (with her phone number in it for emergencies), and then work on what she needed to get done for an entire day or two.
When she disconnected for an entire day or two, the world didn’t stop turning, and she was able to get a lot more done. Taking a break for a day or two from email gives your mind a much-needed rest, allows you to focus on bigger and better things, and chances are it will provide you with even more energy when you reconnect.