How to smash your email inbox
Your email inbox could be costing you more than four months' worth of productivity every year. Can you beat the unread pile?
It’s almost impossible to believe, but research from the team at training business Productivity Day says we lose 145 days (that’s right – not hours but days) annually to “distractions, overload, perfectionism, demands, overwhelm, low energy, non-important tasks and interruptions”. We now take five full work days to do 1.8 days of deep work!
If that seems a little extreme, consider the 2017 Britain’s healthiest workplace report, a survey of 31,950 employees, which said 30.4 days annually are lost through illness and presenteeism alone. That’s before distractions, overload and non-important tasks.
Interestingly, as technology increases our potential for productivity (a piece of research from the Australian Government, for instance, says 5G communication technology could add $2000 in GDP per capita at the end of the first decade), it also increases the potential for us to be distracted (faster internet = more communications).
The time thief
Of course, one of the greatest productivity thieves in the workplace is email. According to Matt Cowdroy, Productivity Ninja at Think Productive Australia, the average worker spends 25% of their working day on email, compared to just 14% of their time in meetings.
“We survey people when we do workshops and ask what wastes their time and they always say that meetings waste most of their time,” said Matt. “Actually, they’re spending almost twice as long on emails.”
The great stressor?
When Matt and his colleagues ask what stresses staff the most, one of the answers is always email.
“One reason for this is overload – there is simply too much traffic,” he explained. “The other thing that stresses people about their email is the meaning they attach to it. When we receive emails from certain people, such as our boss, we create a story in our head about the meaning of the email and that’s often a negative story.”
Finally, Matt said, because we never have a ‘zero inbox’, we’re continually seeing the same emails. If there is emotion, drama or stress attached to any of those emails then it is dragged up again and again each time we scroll past.
What can we do to achieve that special state of nirvana known as Inbox Zero? Here’s what the Productivity Ninja recommends.
5 steps to 'Inbox Zero'
1. Treat it like a letterbox
Use your inbox the same way you use your letterbox. Rather than allowing old emails to pile up, move them elsewhere. Create three folders in your email system called @Action, @Read and @Waiting (the ‘@’ symbol ensures they stay at the very top of your email folder list). These are your processing folders.
This way, nothing needs to sit in your inbox. Then simply get into a daily habit of processing emails in the @Action folder, moving emails from @Waiting into @Action as soon as you have what you need, and moving files out of @Read as soon as you’ve had time to read them.
2. ‘Process’ emails, don’t ‘check’ them
When you gather your letters on a daily basis, you don’t stand there and open all of the envelopes, read what is in them, and respond. Instead you process the letters.
Some go straight into the recycling bin, some onto the kitchen bench, and perhaps some go into a ‘to-do’ tray for later. Treat your inbox the same way, moving emails to where they belong, rather than feeling you need to action each one immediately. Remember, emails typically contain other people’s priorities, not yours.
3. Ensure folders are big buckets, not tiny cups
You don’t need a folder for every department in your company, said Matt. You don’t need a folder for every individual topic. Instead, ensure folders are large and general. That way it’s easier and faster to figure out where emails should be filed, and if you should need to find the email again, simply use the search functionality.
4. Measure your success
Once your new system is in place, it’s easy to tell when it’s time to process emails in the inbox. Perhaps you’ll decide that each time the inbox contains 20 emails, it’s time to process them. Whatever the figure, it should be one that doesn’t overwhelm. Don’t wait until the inbox is packed with hundreds of messages or the old stress will return.
5. Don’t send emails!
With email, Matt explained, people get what they deserve. If you’re a serial cc user, you’ll receive a lot more emails than you should. If you subscribe to many regular email newsletters etc, and never unsubscribe, don’t complain!
And if you send emails instead of walking over to somebody’s desk, then of course you’ll receive more emails than others will. Group - or cc’d - emails should be avoided wherever possible. Cut down your email production and it will be a gift to others and, in return, a gift to yourself.
About the author
Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin Australia Voyeur, The Australian Magazine, GQ, In The Black, Cadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.