Leaving Work Behind

How to Halve Your Time Spent on Emails (In 3 Simple Steps)

Written by Tom Ewer on June 2, 2015. 20 Comments

Emails are a bitch, right?7827785878_4a9c041ff8_o

Your inbox seems like a never-ending pit of demands; an intimidating list of other people’s priorities.

In a perfect world, you would be setting your own priorities, yet if you’re like the majority of people, email rules your working life and dictates, to a large extent, what you do and when.

So let’s change that with three simple tips that you can implement – and benefit from – today.

Email Productivity Strategy #1: Set Strict Email Rules

I have a very simple seven step process that I follow whenever I open my inbox:

  1. Open the first email in your inbox.
  2. If it absolutely needs responding to immediately, deal with it.
  3. If it can be dealt with in less than two minutes, deal with it.
  4. Navigate to the next email in your inbox.
  5. Repeat steps 2–4 until you have processed all emails.
  6. Return to the first email in your inbox and deal with it.
  7. Continue to deal with emails until you are finished or have run out of time.

Following the above process achieves three things:

  1. The most important emails are dealt with first.
  2. You are likely to have at least seen all your emails before your allotted time is out (see below).
  3. You don’t waste time on low priority emails when you could be doing more important things.

Email Productivity Strategy #2: Set ‘Time Budgets’ and Never Stray Outside the Lines

One of the reasons many of us are so unproductive with emails is because we jump in and out of our inbox throughout the day, rarely giving ourselves the opportunity to get into a ‘flow’ of dealing with emails.

With that in mind, my second strategy is simple: give yourself allotted ‘time budgets’ to deal with your emails.

Personally, I go for three 30 minutes slots – in the morning, at lunchtime and before I finish for the day. In a perfect world I’ll get that down to two or even just one session – that’s the target I’m aiming for.

Having at least one slot at the end of the day works especially well for me, because the downside to not getting through my emails is simple: I’ll have to carry on working through them beyond the magic hour of 5pm until I’m done.

My advice is to measure how long you spend on emails for the first week, then set down a time budget that’s 20% less than the total time you spent. You’ll be surprised at how easy this is to achieve, simply by virtue of you setting yourself a budget and being aware of it.

The key to this strategy is to actually stick to it. Set yourself a timer if necessary, but make sure that you stop working on your emails as soon as your time is up.

Email Productivity Strategy #3: Measure and Improve

By this stage you have hopefully measured how long you’re spending on emails, but I don’t want you to stop now.

In fact, you should continue to measure your time taken on emails – budgeted time versus actual time. Then I want you to beat your previous bests.

In a perfect world, your time spent on email will decrease as you become more efficient and ever mindful of time taken. You have essentially ‘gamified’ the process which, dare I say it, actually makes dealing with emails fun.

Let Me Know How You Get On!

The above three steps have easily halved the amount of time I spend on email, but I’d love to know how you get on.

With that in mind, please share your results with us in the comments section below! And if you have any questions, comments or email productivity suggestions of your own, let yourself be heard!

Image Credit: Jenni C

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20 Responses to “How to Halve Your Time Spent on Emails (In 3 Simple Steps)”

  1. Gina Horkey
    June 2, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Great topic Tom! Email can be a pain and I’ve certainly been guilty of popping in and out of my inbox all day! I would add to not check email on your phone (I don’t have a smartphone, so I can’t). Research shows the majority of people don’t respond, but do check frequently. It just creates undue stress and takes you away from important things, like your family!

  2. Lindsay Liedke
    June 2, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    Hi Tom!
    While I do not have too many incoming emails a day (yet!) I am definitely guilty, as Gina mentioned, of checking on my phone throughout the day. It’s a crazy addiction that I need to let go of. Constantly worrying about who has responded and who has not throughout the day can really drive me crazy and decrease my productivity (because my mood becomes based on those emails). I will take your advice and see how it works. I like the alotted times (morning, lunch, end of day). Thanks for the idea!

  3. Stephen E Souls
    June 2, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    I also periodically look at emails I am signed up for and ask myself if they are still worth the investement in my time. If they aren’t, I unsubscribe. If they are, I move the email to a, “To Read” file. I give the, “To Read” file an uninterrupted hour of my time every Friday. Works well.

  4. Jamie
    June 3, 2015 at 10:07 am

    Hi Tom,

    Appropriately timed blog post. I need to try and implement some of your techniques as my email checking habits are out of control.

    Whenever I hear the ‘ding’ on my iPhone, I can’t resist whipping it out to check out what’s new. Even when I don’t hear anything, I still scan my inbox periodically in case I missed something.

    I would love to be able to check email 3 times a day like yourself, but that wouldn’t fit in with my work. The people I work with expect you to be on call 24/7. After they send you an email they even call you to ask if you got it and for your thoughts. Totally defeats the purpose of email, but I suppose it allows them to feel productive.

    Only 3 times is a bit too infrequent for me. Think I’ll start with once an hour at work, or whenever I take a break, and then gradually increase the time between checks.

  5. Michal
    June 3, 2015 at 11:52 am

    80% of emails I get is spam. I use Thunderbird as an email client and it has a cool feature of marking the messages as a spam (in combination with automatic filters of course).
    Once a message is marked, the next emails from that source will be marked as well. I don’t waste my time on going through them in the future.

    • Mark Garcia
      June 11, 2015 at 2:49 pm

      I would unsubscribe from every list that doesn’t offer solid value for your business. If you haven’t received valuable business advice from the site, unsubscribe.

      Services like Unroll.Me will give you a complete list of emails you’re subscribed to for easy editing.

  6. Joe
    June 5, 2015 at 8:54 am

    I turned email notifications off on my phone a while ago and its been great.

    Now I check my email on my phone when I’m ready, not when my phone tells me to!

    I’ve toyed with using Boomerang with Gmail to delay when my sent emails actually get sent.

    This can help reduce the chances of people quickly replying to an email you’ve just sent, while you are still going through the emails in your inbox – this can quickly lead to email tennis and you never working your way through the list.

    I will try setting time slots and seeing if I can stick to them.


  7. Mark Garcia
    June 11, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    I also like to create an email filing system that help me keep focused and for quick search later on.

    Completed – This is for everything that requires no action

    Delegation – This is for everything that requires actions from other people

    Things To Do – This is for everything that requires actions from me

    There are may filing systems, I find this works for me.

  8. Rachel
    June 24, 2015 at 2:25 am

    Great tips! I definitely will be using these in my freelance copywriting business. You’re right emails are a ‘bitch’.

  9. John Anderson
    July 11, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    Hi Tom,

    Good tips. I was just talking to my wife about this while we read your blog and we admit that we are both slaves to Outlook. When I’m sitting at working -trying to be productive- it all goes out the window when I see that Outlook alert pop up in the bottom right hand side of the screen. Its like I’ve programmed myself to stop what ever I’m doing and go see what has arrived.

    It could be something exciting or interesting, or I might partially dread what its going to say (more work). Either way, I realise that I am just using these pop ups as a distraction from the job at hand. in a way its a form of procastination.

    I have tried turning Outlook off for periods of the day and its like existing in a ‘cone of silence’ its magnificent but then I slip back into my old ways and leave it on again the following day.

    Also I’ve discovered I can’t turn it off because it has my calendar and I miss meetings.

    So maybe I need to find a way to a) turn off the pop ups and b) set myself a post-it note to remind me to stick to your 30 min rule. even just for 1 week to try it out.

    Thanks for the article and the ideas.



  10. Carrie Lewis
    November 10, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    I just either reply and delete method. Most times it can work lol ;-P

  11. Eve Rossmiller
    November 10, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    Hello, Tom–Thanks for the valuable advice! In the process of downsizing our 1,800 SF home to a life of minimalism and simplicity, I have neglected to apply the same fervor to getting rid of the glut of emails clogging my inbox. I will apply your valuable tips starting today! Also, I’d like to add one more–each month, I review my email subscriptions and if I haven’t saved something of value from a subscription: tips, posts or other worthy content, I UNSUBSCRIBE. 🙂

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