Taming the email beast can improve more than your productivity.
Updated 24 August 2016
For people who find time a precious resource, there is one glaring but often-overlooked part of the day you can relearn to claim back hours of your working week.
The email inbox was conceived as a project by high school student Shiva Ayyadurai, and today is on just about every work and personal device on the planet.
Though email certainly has helped the world move faster than ever before, it also takes hours out of every working person’s day.
“[Ayyadurai] was tasked by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, at the age of 14, with the creation of a digital way to send messages instead of traditional mail,” explains Ethan Glessich, managing director of enarah, a company that helps companies and employees boost productivity.
“But unlike [inventors such as] the Wright brothers, who you would be thrilled to meet, Ayyadurai says most people [say that] they want to kill him because of his work.”
Sometime it’s easy to see why. According to the McKinsey report, Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, the average worker now spends 28 per cent of the work day writing and responding to emails.
"Getting that inbox number of messages down to zero is often a revelation for people." – Ethan Glessich, enarah
Worse still, failure to manage our inboxes can lead to a general feeling of despair and resignation that the growing mountain of messages will never diminish.
“Email was designed to be part of a flow,” Glessich says.
“The emails would flow in and out and enable constant communication. But it has become a bottleneck and someone’s whole morning can disappear. If you can make even a 10 per cent improvement, then the knock-on effect across the individual business and the economy runs into the millions of dollars.”
According to Glessich, who spoke on the subject at CPA Congress 2014, there are two real changes that people who work to reduce their inbox to zero each day experience.
The first is with their psyche.
“Getting that inbox number of messages down to zero is often a revelation for people," he says. To go from having 2000 messages and receiving 200 a day, to having none when you shut down at the end of the day can be mind-blowing to someone who isn’t used to it.
“It’s really amazing how people feel about it. They take screenshots of their inbox and email them to me all the time.”
Related: How to break bad habits
The second has to do with time.
“What do people do with this free time they find they have? Ideally it will be used to get out and meet with clients and do some other high-value activity,” Glessich says.
The key to getting started isn’t about selecting all the offending emails and deleting them, although Glessich says that if an email has been dormant in your inbox for five weeks then it’s probably worth deleting.
Rather, it is to tackle the problem in a way that will have ongoing benefits, and to do this you need to learn an underlying process.
“You have to be able to do it in real time," Glessich says. "We’re talking about making very, very small changes but changes that will lead to a big result.”
It’s about establishing a process that creates flow through an email program.
“We are all creatures of habit, and the brain forms habits when we do something over and over.
“Some of our habits make our lives easier, and others make them harder. Our brains have formed habits around our handling of email and that’s what needs to be addressed.
“By thinking about what we are doing, and working through the problem in real time, we can all save ourselves hours in the day.”
5 methods to manage your email
- Get into a habit. Don't check your email incessantly, as this - can get in the way of completing core work. Instead, try checking it at set intervals. Experiment to see what works best for you, whether that's checking it three times a day or once every hour.
- Use the "mark as unread" function: Not every email is time sensitive and this function is a convenient way of saving an email for later.
- Send fewer emails. Sounds too simple to be true but using the phone, getting up and talking to colleagues or saving items for weekly meetings can all help chip away at the deluge. Don't automatically default to email.
- Turn off notifications. Resisting the siren call of an email can help you achieve key point number 1 above; that is, choosing when you look at and respond to emails based on your own work flow.
- Unsubscribe. If your inbox is flooded with emails that rarely get read, unsubscribe. Chances are, you won't miss them in the least.