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Does your inbox keep you from doing real work?

Your inbox - the distracting Task Master

Email management is rarely included in people’s task description. Yet, if you ask people whether they can go home when they’re done with their “to do” list, the answer is often, “No, I still have my inbox waiting.”

Reality is even more sobering. Most people unwittingly let their mailbox control a large part of their working days. We start the day full of good intentions to reduce that number of unread emails. Our flow gets interrupted as soon as a new message arrives. Curiosity takes over. What if that message contains an update to what you’re working on? Or what if it’s even more important than your current task? A quick peek can answer that question. The problem is, those quick peeks add up rather quickly.

The University of Loughborough made these findings in an email interruption study[i]:

  • Employees at the company studied allowed themselves to be interrupted by incoming emails almost every 5 minutes.
  • The common reaction to the arrival of an email is to react within 6 seconds.
  • The recovery time from an email interruption to get back to the original task is 64 seconds.

In other words, if we’re anything like the participants to the study, we lose about 12 minutes (20%!) every hour from the distraction of emails arriving. That’s around an hour and a half every day! And then we haven’t even talked about the distractions coming from other sources like telephone calls, people dropping by and social media.

Turning the Tide
At Email Handyman we are passionate about giving people tools to minimise the time spent in their inboxes and to free up time for real work. For inbox management, the key is to have set moments in the day to go into your inbox and sort your messages. Here’s an eating analogy that works for us: For a productive day, start with a healthy breakfast and check in again at lunch time. Everything else is snacking. 

“Take control. Choose when you go into your inbox instead of being drawn into it.”

Wow. Many people get a little nervous when we suggest this to them. They are used to frequent checking and fast responses. They are concerned their contacts may frown when messages don’t get responded to in an instant. Our advice: try it out. People get used to changes in your working style pretty quickly. If needed, have a clarifying message in your auto-responder saying that you check your inbox at regular intervals during the day and asking senders to call you if they need a response sooner. If you feel that twice a day is not workable for your working environment, set a schedule that is. The important thing is to choose when you go into your inbox rather than to be drawn into it.

 Wear a Postman’s hat.
When you are in your Inbox, you are there for only one reason: to empty the Inbox by sorting the messages to where they belong. Mentally, you are wearing your Postman’s Hat. For efficient sorting, work with action-driven folders to stay on top of your tasks.

Set yourself clear times when you want to wear your Postman's Hat. Stick to those times as much as you can. Just like with eating: the less snacking, the better.

For efficient sorting:

  1. Start at the top. Empty your Inbox one-by-one. No putting back!
  2. Immediately address any action for you that can be done in less than 2 minutes.
  3. Sort all other messages to their rightful folders. For tasks that will take longer, consider scheduling dedicated time in your calendar.

When your inbox is empty, take off your Postman’s Hat and enjoy having more time to do real work.


Do you have any great email tips that work for you? Why not share them with fellow readers as a comment below?


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