Email is the default busy work for most people today. I currently don’t receive a lot of emails, but in a previous role I was frequently inundated with emails, and a few days out of the office undoubtedly resulted in hundreds of unread emails to sort through. With so many messages coming it at every moment, and with so many people receiving, reading, and replying to emails all around us, it feels like checking and answering email is an important part of our jobs.
The reality is often that email is one of the least productive and least meaningful tasks for us to engage with. I have always like the idea that there are four types of tasks (an idea we can apply to emails): 1) Urgent and Important, 2) Urgent but Unimportant, 3) Non-urgent but Important, and 4) Non-urgent and Unimportant. Many of the emails that we spend time with fall into categories 2 and 4, and consequentially our action on those emails doesn’t provide much benefit to ourselves or anyone else.
With a better system we can move email to the periphery of our work, rather than keeping it at the center where it is continuously monitored throughout the day. This approach is difficult and takes real planning to implement if you are used to being on top of your email at every moment. For many of us, our day starts by checking every email first thing in the morning and we default to an easy strategy of trying to keep the inbox clear whenever we have a second to check it.
Changing away from this default would require deliberate action on our end. Cal Newport sums it up in his book Deep Work, “If e-mail were to move to the periphery of your workday, you’d be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on and for how long. This type of planning is hard.”
A solution that I found helpful for managing emails went like this. First thing in the morning I would log in and quickly scan my emails. Email that was obviously unimportant I would archive. I used Gmail and had Boomerang, which allowed me to make emails disappear from my inbox and show up at a later time when I could address those issues that were non-urgent. Any email that was important and urgent I would review to see whether it truly needed action at this moment or not. If it didn’t, I could use Boomerang to have the email come back to me at an appropriate time.
After lunch each day I scheduled 1 hour of admin time for myself. During this time I would address the non-urgent but important emails that needed a response from me, or that I did need to be aware of. I would also use this admin time to schedule the remainder of my day and the first half of the next day (or longer if possible). I could estimate the time needed for me to focus on specific tasks, and block time on my schedule to handle those tasks, with an hour admin block after lunch for the following day for more planning.
This was a tough schedule that required focus and effort to maintain, but during the day I could reliably concentrate on important tasks. My mind was not constantly trying to ask whether I was working on the right thing, and I didn’t have to try to remember emails I had clicked in earlier. I improved over time at estimating how much time I would need for certain tasks, and I could routinely adjust for meetings and interruptions as needed. I got a lot done, and I kept up with email just fine, even though I only spent a small amount of time on email in the morning, and sent a lot of emails straight to archive.