Have you ever spent an entire day checking your email, just to find that you have more email at the end of the day than when you started? Me too.
In an effort to get better control of my time, to clear up my brain, and get more done, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about time management.
I read books (Getting Things Done, The 4-Hour Workweek), blogs (The Bulletproof Executive, Less Doing More Living), and tried out various tools (Things, Trello, Asana) and services (Fancy Hands, TaskRabbit).
These days I only check email for about 30 minutes a day and always get to inbox zero. I’m able to spend most of my day focused on non-email related tasks, the kind of things that most people can’t find time to do, like writing and strategy.
Here are a few rules to follow:
1. Keep your to-dos outside of your inbox
Most people treat email as a to-do list. This is a really bad habit that you have to get over, for three reasons: (i) one email can hide multiple tasks, or none at all, (ii) anyone can send you an email at any time, essentially making your list not controlled by you at all, and (iii) email tends to prioritize your short-term stuff because its order is reverse chronological, and the bigger, long-term tasks get hidden or never show up there in the first place.
Create a list of tasks to work off of that is somewhere outside your email. I don’t care if it’s in Trello, Asana (what I use), or written on a piece of paper. Just make sure you’re not working out of your inbox all day long.
2. Don’t respond to emails right when you get them
What I do when I read an email is I think about what tasks are hidden in that email, I’ll add those tasks to my to-do list, and archive the email to get it out of my inbox.
Is this overkill? No.
First of all, if you respond to an email immediately, what you’re basically doing is opening up a conversation. The other person sees that you’re responding right away, and is probably going to get back to you a few minutes. How many conversations can you really engage in at the same time? Likely not many before it starts taking up all your mental space.
Secondly, if you’re dealing with the next email that you get, you’re basically constantly doing tasks because they happen to show up next, not because they’re high priority. In order to make sure you get important stuff done, you have to be able to look at a list of all the things you need to do so that you can decide which one is most important.
The exception to this rule is that if an email takes less than 2 minutes to read, respond to (completely), and then you’re done with it, then do it right away. But I keep a timer on hand to make sure that I hold myself to this. It’s really easy to underestimate the amount of time it will take to respond to one email. And before you know it, you’ve spent the whole day on a handful of emails and haven’t really gotten anything important done all day.
3. Check your email only once or twice a day and don’t do it in the morning
Stay out of your inbox for as long as possible so that you can really focus on other stuff and not get distracted by emails that may be urgent but aren’t important.
This is really hard to do if you’re used to checking your email every 15 minutes. Yes, that means you have to turn off phone notifications.
Dedicate your mornings to getting important thing done, and don’t check your email until after noon. I personally try not to check my email until after 4pm. That way I can batch and get through most of my daily emails all at once.
Definitely don’t check email in the morning. You’ve got other important things to do besides the stuff in your inbox. Take at least an hour or two every morning to make sure you’re making progress on non-email related tasks.
4. Train people to not expect immediate responses from you over email
A lot of people tell me, “But my job requires me to be super responsive over email,” or, “My boss would kill me if I didn’t read my email until 4pm.”
First of all, your job relies on you actually getting stuff done. You’d be surprised what kind of crazy behavior you can get away with if you’re crazy productive.
But the biggest problem is that we’ve all created this expectation that email is an immediate communication mechanism (which it’s not).
If you rely on email to get notifications from people about time-sensitive stuff like meeting confirmations, you have to make it clear that people need to call you or send you a text instead.
The easiest way to do this is to just stop checking your email as often. If someone asks you, “Did you see my email?” You say, “No, not yet. I was busy doing something.” Eventually people will get the hint.
5. Have prewritten responses ready for the most common emails you get
If you find yourself answering the same question over and over again through email, just take some time and write out a well-thought out response. Then use that response.
Better yet, turn it into a blog post and send people a link to that blog post when they ask. (I learned this technique from my friend Derek Sivers.) For example, here’s a blog post I wrote called How to get a busy person to respond to your email because I was tired of getting long, unclear emails.
I’ve got prewritten emails for people emailing me asking for help growth hacking their startup, finding a growth hacker, wanting to grab coffee, learning how to code, and a few other common questions.
If you want to take it to the next level, have someone (like an assistant) read through your email and respond to the common ones using your prewritten emails. I have mine label the emails that I need to read ‘Mattan’ and then I read only those and ignore the rest.
Hacks to make your email more efficient
I’m a big fan of Asana (which I use alongside David Allen’s Getting Things Done time-management method), though I prefer Things as a personal task manager. Both of them have keyboard shortcuts for creating tasks that include links to whatever page you have open at the moment. That’s how I quickly turn any email into a task, with a link to that email automatically put into the notes so that I can easily get back to the email even once I’ve archived it.
I’ve also discovered two Gmail hacks that make it easier to get your email less often.
The first is a link that takes you directly to the ‘Compose Email’ view (for when you need to shoot off a quick email during the day while avoiding your inbox):
(You can drag this up to your bookmark bar.)
(You can add this by right clicking on the bookmark bar, selecting add page/bookmark, and pasting that code into the URL field.)
There’s tons more to be said here but I think I’m done for now.
Let me know if you use or have heard of any techniques that I haven’t mentioned above.