Email can be a distraction that constantly diverts focus from important business. The more time you spend on email, the lower your perceived productivity and the higher your measured stress, according to a 2016 study by researchers at Microsoft, University of California Irvine and MIT.
For the typical executive, many emails are unsolicited communications or routine matters—distractions that can be eliminated. These techniques can help you get some of your peak hours back.
1. Triage and manage your inbox with apps.
If you subscribe to email newsletters and digests, participate in social and professional networks or receive a lot of external communications, you know that simply sifting through the inbox for important emails drains your time.
SaneBox can shed some of that burden. The app filters incoming messages into folders like “SaneLater" and “SaneNews," uncluttering your inbox instantly and making it easy to delete nonessential messages in bulk. You can train it to send specific emails to the “SaneBlackHole" (never to be seen again), defer messages to later and automate tasks such as follow-up reminders for non-replies.
If you use Gmail, Boomerang can help track responses while allowing you to schedule emails for later and to “bring" an email back to your inbox at a specified time. Inbox Pause is another Gmail app that lets you put a hold on incoming emails until you’re ready to look at them.
Don't want to lose articles or links you get by email? Clip them and save for reading later with Evernote and its browser plug-ins. Organize notes into themed notebooks and sync them for access from any mobile device or computer. You can search the notes, add comments, attach PDFs, include photos and more.
2. Hire a virtual assistant.
Even the best automation can't handle email the way a virtual assistant can. How much you should delegate depends on your style. At minimum, it should be anything you consider routine or nonessential.
The best assistants could take full charge of the inbox, flagging emails that need your personal attention, summarizing those that are important and managing the rest. You can ask your virtual assistant to reply on your behalf, compose drafts, handle requests for meetings and more.
If you're concerned about privacy, consider having two accounts—a general address that's publicized and is accessed by the assistant and a private one you only share with your closest associates. If you don't want a second address, you can delegate email management with the built-in Outlook and Gmail sharing features; or, with SaneBox, you can send the assistant your daily digest of nonessential emails.
3. Create "no" email templates.
How often do you receive emails asking you to do something you don't have time for? From sales pitches, matters you don’t routinely handle and meetings that don’t have a productive purpose, the requests can be endless.
Create “no" templates for those common situations to save not only time but also emotional energy. With templates, you can still take the time to create thoughtful responses—once. For those few times you truly wish you could say yes, simply add a personalized sentence.
4. Schedule communication windows.
Even if you limit email interactions throughout the day, getting back on track is not easy. After an interruption, it may take time to return to the task at hand. That's where the popular batching method comes in. This technique minimizes distractions by creating limited windows for email communications, typically twice a day. Optimize by scheduling around your peak productivity hours.
5. Use the Pomodoro Technique.
A variation on batching, the Pomodoro Technique keeps your schedule under control by using a set timer for tasks. Time management expert Francesco Cirillo, who developed the technique, named it after the common kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (i.e. “pomodoro" in Italian).
The idea is simple: Set the timer for 25 minutes to spend on a task uninterrupted. Take a short break. Repeat. Take a longer break after four “pomodoros."
Adapt this to email by limiting time spent on replies, mass-deleting emails waiting in your “later” folder, catching up on “read and review later" links and so on.
Breaking a habit takes time. If you're finding yourself "cheating" frequently by checking your email on your phone, set the phone on airplane mode for a while. Problem solved.
Learn more ways to get business done.