Why Email Kills Productivity & What You Can Do About It

On a scale of 1-10, how on top of email are you?

0 = Total wimp
You’re buried alive in the onslaught of incessant messaging. Weeks go by before you get around to answering some emails, and some never receive a response.

5 = Survivor
You’re just barely staying afloat. Every day is a stressful exercise in managing the urgent, while neglecting the important.

10 = Email ninja
You’re a verified inbox samurai, slicing and dicing those messages as quickly as they come in. You respond to every email within 24 hours of receiving it.

If you find yourself at the lower end of the scale, that’s okay. I’ve been there. But I don’t want to be there anymore. I want out of the crazy house. I’m learning how important it is to stay on top of my inbox every day.

Mail Inbox
Photo credit: Esparta (Creative Commons)

As a leader, I’m not okay with letting weeks go by while people wait to hear back from me.

As much as I am able, I want to be accessible to my colleagues, friends, and family. And I can’t do that if I’m never on top of this mountain of messages.

Many organizations rely heavily on email, sometimes to a fault. While it can be a tremendous tool for efficiency, it can also be a huge time suck and productivity killer.

Why email isn’t always great

  • Email is a non-confrontational. It can empower passive-aggressive people to mishandle conflict.
  • Email is impersonal. It doesn’t communicate the nuances of your personality well. Messages can easily be misinterpreted.
  • Email is urgent. The temptation of constantly checking your inbox, while neglecting the more important tasks of the day, is always present.

This is tricky, because you can spend your whole day clicking the “get mail” button, responding to messages for eight to ten hours straight, and it feels like actual work.

This is not how you should be spending your whole day. Without practicing daily disciplines, it’s easy to fall behind. But there’s hope: YOU CAN CONQUER THIS.

Here are the three simple rules to help you become a ninja with your email:

Rule #1: Get your inbox to zero everyday

Merlin Mann introduced Inbox Zero — the practice of emptying your email inbox every single day. It’s tough, but rewarding.

Michael Hyatt has a great method for doing this that I’ve been using for years:

  • Do – If it’s actionable, do the task right now.
  • Delegate – Forward it to the correct person.
  • Defer – Decide to do it later.
  • Delete – If you don’t need it for later, drop it like a bad habit.
  • File – Add it to your archives for later reference (but only if absolutely necessary).

In my experience, most email is disposable. About 90% of the messages I process are deleted. I pass them on to someone else, file them away, do what they tell me to do, or delete them. If the message has an action step in it, I add the task to my to-do list and then delete it.

Rule #2: Set times to not check email

Tim Ferriss suggests that you begin tackling email by checking it twice a day (and eventually once every 10 days, if you can swing it).

That may be a lofty aspiration for some, but the idea is that you need to have focused times of trudging through your inbox and intentional times when you’re doing other work.

Whatever you do, have some set times when your inbox isn’t open, so that you can focus. Sometimes, that which matters most takes more than five minutes to complete.

Rule #3: Practice good email etiquette

A lot of people misuse email. Here are nine ways to get the results you’re looking for:

  1. Make it actionable.
  2. Proofread before sending.
  3. Keep it concise, without being rude.
  4. Make it scannable. Use short paragraphs (2-3 lines) and formatting to make sure your content is read.
  5. Be polite, but not overly formal. Don’t waste people’s time with formalities, when unnecessary.
  6. Pick up the phone. Sometimes, it’s just easier to call the person.
  7. Respond within 24 hours. Even if this is just a “hey, I got your email,” this should be a common courtesy.
  8. Make it about only one topic and communicate it clearly.
  9. Don’t go crazy on the CC; only include those who need to be a part of the discussion.

Entering the battle

The other day, I counted how many emails I had processed for the day. 203. That was a slow day. I hit refresh. 30 new messages appeared in my inbox. I sighed, closed my laptop, and went to bed.

This is a battle that you have to fight every single day. It never really ends. You need to give it all you got, without letting it consume you.

The main question is: Will you fight? Or will your inbox win?

Further Reading:

How did you rate on the email scale? Honestly share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Esparta (Creative Commons)