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)

67 thoughts on “Why Email Kills Productivity & What You Can Do About It

  1. Great aggregation of a lot of great tips from around the web. Bad email habits are a symptom of indecisiveness. When we make decisions quickly and frequently, email gets simpler. Easier said than done, though. 

  2. Great thoughts, Jeff. Email kills me. I am working at trying to be more organized in dealing with it, but it is definitely something that we have to be intentional about.

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. One bonus tip/idea: You might try making a decision immediately. Don’t read the email then return to it… ever. Decide as soon as you receive it whether you’ll do it, defer it, delegate it, delete it, or file it.

  3. I notice certain people at work are constantly responding to email.  And constantly getting email. They must not realize that for every message they send, they will get at least one in return! I’ve become more selective about what I reply to in the first place- especially messages that are sent to a group.  I’ll only respond if a response is truly needed, and that has really helped cut down on email load.

    1. I’m learning the same. It’s fascinating how often email is sent without any idea as to what the point is. I often ask people, “What’s the action here?” And they don’t know. To be honest, sometimes I don’t know what I’m trying to do with an email. I’m just talking to talk. Trying to stop that.

  4. I’m definitely not an all-out ninja, though I do get through all my emails daily. My problem is not deciding what to do with messages. An email comes in, makes my life more complicated, and I ignore it…for now. I need to get better at making quick decisions about what to do with emails and what my next actions are.

    1. Yep. This is tough, but necessary. You should try to get to a point where you’re deciding what to do as soon as the email enters your inbox (or as soon as you read it). Don’t put of making a decision till later. By doing that, you’re essentially DOUBLING the time it should take to respond. You read it once just to read it and then read it again later to decide. This can eat up hours.

        1. sounds like you’re doing great, man! love how you acknowledge all the challenges holding you back from creating. you’ve got some great discipline.

  5. Jeff, honestly… I’m a -5. Its bad. I’m drowning. I have 8K emails [bows head in shame]. Ha ha. I’m working on trying to start afresh with a new email address. Its so overwhelming. So are you constantly checking your email during the day while putting those steps into practice? Or do you just have certain times to check it? 

    Also, what do you do about other social media mails? Like face-book messages? Twitter DM’s? How do you handle that? Do you get notification emails from social media outlets too? 

    1. Thanks for the honesty, Sammy. I have intentional times when I do NOT check email. In fact, this is the ONLY way to stay on top of email and get other stuff done — you can’t ignore your inbox, but it can’t rule you, either. The biggest tip I can give is to make a decision about what you will do with the message immediately. Don’t put it off until later or file it without deciding. You’ll never get back to it.

      Regarding other social media, I have everything by Twitter DMs forwarded to my email. I treat my email inbox as my priority inbox. The book Making Ideas Happen talks about this — how you need to have ONE place where all your messages are aggregated.

      Twitter is an exception to this. I check that a few times per day and respond to replies and DMs, but not everything. I get notifications when I receive a FB message; if I have the person’s email, I just email them back usually. This is another topic that I may tackle in a separate post.

  6. Jeff, I’ve been using email since it was invented and I still cycle between 5 and 10. I think we all do. This is a great list – thanks!

  7. I got a 10, but that’s probably just because I’m a college student and used to checking my email every 5 seconds (hoping to read that class has been canceled)

    1. I may have been slightly unclear — checking email every 5 seconds (which I used to in college, too) doesn’t make you a 10. Responding to people within 24 hours and getting important stuff at the same time does. It’s hard to be a 10. Few people are.

  8. I live by email.  I use my inbox as my todo list in a lot of ways – even by sending myself emails about what I need to remember to get done.  Important emails are almost always taken care of within a few hours.  However, I let a lot of non-important email pile up thinking that I will want to spend time reading it…just not now.

    One thing I would like to do better with is setting aside times during the day where I turn off the email app and focus on productivity.

  9. I rank somewhere between “wimp” & “survivor”!!! :0  Your article was a blessing, & I thank you, Jeff, for some awesome advice & tips for an organized structuring of  my email inbox!

  10. Maybe a 6.

    Disconnecting from e-mail during vacation helped me realize, when I came back to it, that most of what I was receiving wasn’t necessary.

    So I cut down the influx of e-mails by clicking “unsubscribe” to a lot of unnecessary e-mail advertisements I was getting.  I also disabled most notifications on twitter and facebook.  I noticed in a previous comment that you use your e-mail for these notifications, but I find it just as easy to hop over to fb to check it or open tweetdeck for twitter.

    Thanks for the tips.

      1. It’s been nice the last few days to only have a minimal amount of e-mails when I’ve checked it.  It motivates me to make the lighting decisions to keep the inbox clear.

  11. Maybe a 6.

    Disconnecting from e-mail during vacation helped me realize, when I came back to it, that most of what I was receiving wasn’t necessary.

    So I cut down the influx of e-mails by clicking “unsubscribe” to a lot of unnecessary e-mail advertisements I was getting.  I also disabled most notifications on twitter and facebook.  I noticed in a previous comment that you use your e-mail for these notifications, but I find it just as easy to hop over to fb to check it or open tweetdeck for twitter.

    Thanks for the tips.

  12. I think I’m going to stop reading your blog . . . my self-esteme is plummeting!   First with the chincy words I use when I write and now with my TotalWimp status of an emailer!  (okay, so really I’m more of a 4.3 . . . I get to round-up, right??)

    Just kidding.  Great tips, as usual!

  13. I’m about a 7.  I’m pretty good about responding to most emails within a day or two, but every once in awhile it’ll stretch longer.  My problem is achieving better balance with my Blackberry.  It’s so easy to see emails and FB and Twitter notifications that I have to train myself to turn my phone over or ignore the blinking light when I’m home so it’s not such a time suck- it’s easier to ignore when I’m at work. 

    1. I actually started using my phone to keep my updated on email without having it open all the time. It helps me be more productive, because I get the fulfillment of checking along with the peace-of-mind knowing that all is well in my world, all without having to spend an hour or two replying, which would totally interrupt my workflow.

  14. I would say I’m about an 8. I crush email. One thing I’ve always done though is save all emails. Not junk email, notifications or piddly stuff. But all real communication is saved. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to verify something because I saved the email.

  15. I am an email ninja.  I get rid of every piece of email that shows up.  Junk to junk, and the newsletters I cull for my site, read, articles opened, then deleted.  When I go to bed zero email awaits me until morning.

  16. Jeff,

    I would give myself a solid 7 rating. You are so right though about number one and number two as far as how e-mail is not so good sometimes. I have seen friendships perish as the result of e-mail tirades of a certain intensity. It’s sad really. So, yes, I am always careful to keep things to the point when it comes to using e-mail as a communication method.

    Very good, incredibly useful post here!


    1. Thanks, Peter. It’s tricky, because people respond so differently to nonverbal cues and read into things. You want to be succinct without being terse; it’s a hard balance.

  17. I usually get to it within 24 hours. Sometimes more if the reply requires real thought, but I’m getting better at sending a single line letting someone know I”m working on a full response.

    Like Tony, I save everything! Ok, not the spam, or the conversations that are dated, but everything else. My email has a search function and I use it all the time, to find old conversations, to find documents I misplaced, to remember who said what and to follow up on old threads. Once my hard drive crashed and I found I hadn’t lost as much as I thought because many things were still in my email as attachments I had received, or sent.

  18. I’m pretty good with emails; I actually have my iPod attached to my hip so whenever a new email comes in it dings and I’ll open it right away and determine if the matter is urgent enough for me to respond right away or wait until I have the time. 

  19. I’m between a survivor and a ninja.  I work for a large insurance company and we’re one of the companies you referred to that use e-mail heavily.  Not only that, but instant messenger is used just about as much.  

    I have a ton of folders and try to file things away in those folders for future reference once I’ve read them.  It’s crazy though because on any one topic, there can be several e-mails between individuals.  I’ve learned to go to the most recent one (if I’m late to the conversation) and read through that one as it will have all the responses to it.  Because we use IM so much, I’ve even started saving some of those conversations as often there are things said there that will be needed for future reference.

    I have a co-worker who is a total wimp who does not keep up on e-mails and it aggravates me as I’ve taken the time to write a detailed message only to have her ask me for the details.  Of course, what’s even crazier is that I sit right across fro  this person, so the amount of time I’ve taken to write an e-mail, I could have just told her verbally.  However, with e-mail, you have proof in writing in case a person doesn’t follow-through.  

      1. Well the group that I work in is often called on to complete requests for the department and people will IM us to ask all sorts of questions, even if it’s something we don’t handle.  I’ve learned to log out altogether if I can’t be bothered.  You can change your status to “I am away” or “In a meeting” and people will still IM you.  

  20. One contribution: While I try to address most of the ideas above, I use my time in the evening while watching tv or movies with my wife to scrub out the non-critical and one-line answer emails. She used to get upset when my laptop displaced her feet on my lap, but has resigned herself to not expecting foot massages!!

  21. Great post Jeff. Sadly, I think many people just flat out ignore a lot of email. In my experience, you are either GREAT with email or have a VERY difficult time with it. I haven’t seen many that fall somewhere in between.  

    Writers should embrace email; it is the sharing of ideas with written words. If the issue with email is strictly a volume issue, saying no to things is really the bigger issue; ignoring email does not make it go away. 

  22. RE wasted time and email… I’m a busy professional, and we need true email inbox management that’s eyes-free and hands-free. There’s a smartphone app called Talkler —billed as “email for your ears.” Talkler is a free smartphone app that’s voice-controlled, and reads your emails aloud to you. There’s more at Talkler.com.

  23. Email has been around forever, and I think it’s mainly our unwillingness to change that keeps it alive. I’ve started limiting my email use, and trying to increase my productivity using other tools (like http://www.sendgine.com) as a way to stay organized.

    My biggest email fail was creating a “pending” folder for all those items I wasn’t ready to quite tackle yet, but since I still wanted to maintain my rule #1 (email to zero daily) I’d move them into there. Problem was “out of sight, out of mind” came into play and many of those emails got forgotten. 🙂

    Some terrific tips here!

  24. Good tips! I think the biggest problem with e-mail is that people organise it in their head. Ofcourse, their are all kind of folder and label options, but those feel like putting it into an archive. That’s way we came up with this idea https://soa.li/61kyvLL With Stamp you put your mail into todo lists. What do you think about that?

  25. Hi there,

    re. https://www.schoolreportwriter.com

    Here’s a time-saving tip for people with a lot of emails to answer. This report-writing site was designed for teachers but is actually great for creating standard flexible emails and letters and is free for anyone to use.

    All the best,


  26. SquadMail lets you and your team share synchronized email folders (or gmail labels). That way you never have to forward emails or CC your entire team again. When your team changes, simply add new members to existing folders. Additionally, each folder gets its own email address. Check it out at https://www.squadmail.com/

  27. Hi,

    The best collaborative inbox I know is Front. (https://frontapp.com/)

    Front is as simple as an email client (Gmail, Sparrow, Airmail, Mail, etc) but with your team, to manage your group addresses such as sales@, support@, contact@, hello@…
    You can comment, assign, mention, etc all your messages !

    A great app !

  28. I would say I am a 10/10 – email ninja! I and a teacher and run https://www.reportcommentbank.co.uk (which is actually great if you have lots of repetitive emails to write). I get hundreds of emails every day during the busy school report writing season and do my best to answer them all within a few hours.

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