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The average American spends about 30% of their work time on email, and only about 40% of their time on role specific tasks.
There are many reasons for this somewhat shocking statistic. Some might say that spending this much time on email is just the new way to work, and that it’s inevitable. I disagree. The biggest reason people spend so much time on email is because of context switching. Context switching is the enemy of effectiveness. I run a business which involves coordinating with many customers, potential customers, contractors and suppliers. I do this primarily by email and still spend about 3 – 5 hours a month on email. Or about 10 – 20min a day.
Context Switching, the Enemy of Effectiveness.
Context switching is the enemy of effective work. A study showed that each time a knowledge worker got distracted from a task it took them an average of about 10mins to refocus on the previous task. What better way to get distracted than have to read an email?
“Batching” is one way you can avoid this. Close your email client and then open it at regular intervals during the day. By doing this you are creating time for yourself to focus, as well as time to respond to emails on time. This method can be applied to other newer communications software like Microsoft Teams, Discord and Slack.
The other method is outlined below. Batching is a topic for another article entirely.
Avoid Context Switching when sorting through email
To avoid context switching when sorting through email, it’s important to realize that email was only created for one purpose: Conversation.
Unfortunately, for many people, over-and-above conversation it is now also a means to get news; process and manage tasks; store information and get bombarded with promotional offers and other junk.
All emails can be broadly categorized into one of the following categories:
Conversation or Communication
There are cases where there is overlap. However the principles I am about to outline remain the same even in these cases.
For email to be effective, we need to realize that there are certain tasks that email is simply not suited to perform. For example, task management. Imagine I told you I had designed a task management system. Tasks are aggregated in an inbox. You can sort by tasks that are most important or alphabetically. There is one caveat. Anyone can add tasks to this list and their tasks always appear at the top. Sound familiar? For many, maybe even you, this is how email is utilized. It’s used as a task manager. The biggest issue with using email as a task manager is that anyone can put their task at the top. It’s for this reason that email should cease to be your task manager. Email is a great tool for communicating tasks, and the nuances surrounding them – who should perform it, how and by when? It just shouldn’t be used to prioritize and plan them. Task managers, hell, even a piece of paper is better for this.
Your email sorting blue print
You sit down at your computer and you have 500 emails to go through. Maybe more. This is the process that I use every day to ensure that I reach inbox 0 everyday and never spend more than 30mins on email.
Open your email client. Start at the top.
If you can reply to them in less than 2mins, then do it. Otherwise, create a task called “Reply to emails” in your task manager and move on. Do this for all emails that could be classified “Conversations”. Conversational emails generally don’t have a task attached to them. But be careful, sometimes an email could be disguised as “comms” but really be a task. If it’s going to take you longer than 2mins to reply to the email, make note of it in your task manager and move to the next email.
Note: When it comes to replying to emails I prefer to create a task called “Reply to xyz [Subj: the email subject]”. I do this for each email that needs to be replied to.
News, Reports and Blogs, these are all examples of reading that might plonk itself in your inbox. Any sort of long form reading should really not be done in your email software. There are great pieces of software like Instapaper and Feedly that allow you to send articles to a list so you can sit down and read them all in one go.
Reading includes anything where a response is not required (it can, but then be sure to create a task to reply) and is going to take more than 2mins to read. Use software such as Feedly, Pocket and Instapaper to send all your Articles, Memos, Blogs and News to. Now create a task in your task manager called “Reading for [today’s date]”. You shouldn’t need more than one task. All your reading should be batched together in a read later app like Instapaper, Pocket or Feedly.
Reference Material, unlike long-form reading, can take many forms. For example, login details for a shared piece of software; a sales report or an “FYI”.
Save this on your computer, neatly filed in a folder pertaining to the project or area that it belongs to. For more reading on storing information based on it’s use and relevance see this article on P.A.R.A.
Unwanted newsletters, spam email and irrelevant cold sales pitches.
Unsubscribe and delete. Use software such as Unroll.me to unsubscribe on mass. Just be sure to read their terms and conditions as they do collect anonymous data about what type of emails you are getting to help companies send better email marketing.
Often emails that are conversational in nature will also be a task. Or have tasks embedded in them in the form of requests or suggestions. Be sure to write these down in your task manager.
Here are the task managers that I recommend:
Email Batching Pro Tip
Copy a direct link to emails and paste them into the respective task in your task manager. I use Thunderbird so I can use an extension called cbthunderlink to achieve this. At the time of writing this also works natively in outlook online, but not Gmail.