Efficient Email

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Checking email too often is a significant productivity drain. Email by its very nature isn’t usually urgent unless it’s your entire job, such as answering customer support emails. Here are some tips to prevent email from taking too big a chunk out of your day.

1. Decide in advance exactly when you’ll check email.

Don’t check email haphazardly. You can easily waste 30-60 minutes per day checking email too often. In most cases you should be fine checking your email 3x per day maximum. I typically check mine in the morning, at lunch, and at the end of the workday. And that’s only if I’m involved in active open-loop communications. If I don’t have any active open loops, then I’ll usually check email once or twice a day. Handle your email in batches to increase your efficiency.

Experiment with how often you really need to check email. Realize that you’re paying a productivity price the more often you check it. Curiosity is not a good enough reason to check email. Have a legitimate business reason for checking email as often as you do. See how infrequently you can push it without causing problems. For many people once a day or even once every two days will work just fine.

Once you check email in the morning, promise yourself that you won’t check it again until the end of the day, and set a specific time. I’ll check my email twice today, so I won’t check it again until after 6:00pm. If it’s before that time, I won’t allow myself to check it.

If you get addicted to checking your email too often, you can help break the habit by making it harder to run your email program. Remove the program icon from your desktop and your quick launch bar, so you have to hunt for it on the Start Menu. Or make yourself launch Explorer and navigate to find the icon from there. Adding extra steps can help break the pattern of impulse checking. And if that still doesn’t work, setup your email on a separate PC like a laptop that you must boot up every time you want to check email.

2. Use email only for non-urgent communication.

Don’t turn email into an urgency-driven communication tool. It’s not designed for that. If time is of the essence, then pick up the phone. Now that you can get unlimited long distance for $25/month from companies like Vonage (also check out Skype), there’s no reason to be stingy with the phone.

If you have others pressuring you to check your email more often than once or twice a day, such as people that get frustrated if they don’t get a reply from you within an hour or two, then you need to push back. Let such people know that they should never use email for truly urgent communication with you — if they need a fast reply, they must pick up the phone or visit you in person (if you’re both co-located).

3. Disable email checking on program startup.

Don’t set your email program to auto-check email every time you launch the program. You want to be able to send an email at any time during the day without automatically checking email too. You may often need to send emails during the day as part of various tasks, but you don’t need to check email at those times. Check email only when there’s a legitimate reason for checking.

4. Log your email usage.

Create an email log, and record how often you check email. You can do this with a sheet of paper. Just record the start and stop times whenever you run your email program. Do it for about a week, and see how much time you’re spending on email. Is it worth it? If you’re checking your email more than 20 times a week without a legitimate reason, you’re wasting way too much time. Try giving yourself a daily or weekly email checking quota, and once you hit it, you can’t check your email anymore until the next day/week when your quota resets. Offer yourself a reward like going to see a movie or going out to dinner the first week you come in under quota.

Email is a powerful business and personal communication tool, but it’s easily abused. Why? Because it’s so easy. Checking and answering email is something you know you can do, so it provides an immediate sense of accomplishment. But it’s a hollow victory, and if you spend your days masterfully checking and answering email, you’ll go nowhere and crowd out those actions that could really move you ahead.

Replace frivolous email abuse with purposeful intention. Use it to enhance your productivity instead of to destroy it. Consciously scrutinize the way you use email, decide what legitimate role it will play in your life, and set boundaries to enforce that role.

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