Tips to put an end to a distracting inbox

An instant productivity booster

We are moving forward with our quest to combat the top 11 productivity killers, next up is No.3: email overload. It’s time to stop wasting precious hours and take control of that unruly inbox with these top productivity tips.

The sheer volume of emails we receive throughout the day overwhelms many of us, while others find the constant stream of notifications and pings pulls them away from the task at hand. Either way, it’s killing productivity.

The average worker sends or receives around 33,000 emails each year according to research by Radicati. With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that a form of communication that businesses have relied on for two decades or so is making employees less efficient.

While email can pose a threat to productivity, it is also an essential work tool that we use every single day.

6 productivity tips to stop email overload

In our productivity killers countdown, Tania, a senior manager for a recruitment firm, outlined her email problem.

“I lack all discipline when it comes to emails, so I end up with three or four live tasks at any point in the day and then picking up other bits as they come in. I’m sure I’d be more productive ‘going dark’ for two hours a day, but I struggle to switch them off!”

We know Tania isn’t alone in her problem so here are six simple productivity tips to take control of your inbox and win back your time.

1. Clear inbox, clear mind

Step one is simple and I’m sure you’re sick of hearing this advice, but it bears repeating. Set yourself aside a chunk of time in the evening or weekend to rifle through your inbox and be brutal with your delete button.

You ought to be able to discard 80% of them just by looking at the title.

Bob Pozen, senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School

After whittling it down to the bare minimum, get to work sorting things into a few appropriate folders, such as ‘needs action’, ‘archive’, ‘hold for future’ etc. Then move on to unsubscribing from time-wasting newsletters, lists, and spam that is no longer relevant and plagues your inbox.

Getting organised is the easy part. The real challenge lies in the maintenance. Answer emails and file them immediately into the relevant folder. Flag and label items to indicate how high a priority they are and to keep track of emails you’re waiting on a response.

Sure, it sounds like hard work, but it will eventually become second nature.

2. Stop typing, start talking

Once upon a time email didn’t exist, and – guess what – things still got done. The Chartered Management Institute told us: “Cut down on emails when necessary – things get done more quickly if you speak to the person directly. Pick up the phone or walk around your office. Not only will the task get done quicker, but it will help you form a better relationship with colleagues making working life better.”

It’s true – you should never substitute a necessary in-person meeting or phone call with an email. These face-to-face interactions allow people to sense tone and understand essential feedback, especially pertaining to sensitive or difficult matters.

In addition, it helps to thin out your inbox – hurrah!

We can also gauge whether our employees are including us in too many ‘FYI’ emails, which can be fixed by a simple conversation – not an email.

Finally, are you hitting ‘reply all’ a little too often? Doing so encourages a stream of one-word responses that are really clogging up your inbox and your headspace. Simply make an effort to only reply to individual senders as you deem necessary.

3. Turn notifications off

We’re all slaves to the ‘bings’ and ‘pings’ that interrupt our workflow. Not only from our emails but from our smartphones too.

It’s time to take control and turn the little push notifications and noises off while at work. When you answer every time you see or hear an incoming message, your productivity really suffers because you can’t focus on the task at hand.

On workdays, 53% of business users check e-mail six or more times a day, while 34% check e-mail constantly throughout the day. On average, 49 minutes per day are spent managing e-mail accounts.

Gartner,  Technology Research company

Avoid getting sidetracked and set yourself a timer for regular two-hour intervals to check your inbox, respond, delete and organise your messages. Doing so will allow you to get more done because you can concentrate on one subject without being interrupted.

4. Respond quickly, not immediately

In our world of being constantly connected, it has become a habit, and for some of those on the receiving end, an expectation, to respond straight away.

If something is pressingly important or of a time-sensitive nature, people will make that extra effort to call or even walk over to your desk and check in.

Yes, we understand it’s vital that you are accessible and responsive in the workplace, but the immediacy that is often self-imposed is unwarranted and is jeopardising productivity.  

Use the email check intervals as mentioned above to reply to the top priority messages first, then move on to getting back to everyone else in a timely manner.

5. Technology can help

Technology could be the answer to cutting down on the internal chatter from employees as it moves everything to a different platform, therefore freeing up your inbox for external work related issues.

Using collaboration tools such as Slack, HipChat and even Google Docs can create a place where all essential (and some non-essential) information between colleagues can be easily accessed and could help to cut down on inquiry emails as most often the information is searchable within the collaboration platforms. It removes the exhausting long email threads a mile deep, forgotten Skype conversations, text messages, and other forms of communication.

Of course, this doesn’t cut down on external emails and there’s no escaping your inbox entirely. Checking your emails can be a welcome distraction when there’s a particularly odious task you need to do. This is where one of our top productivity tips comes into its own – use a time tracking software such as TallyPro’s.

When you know the clock’s ticking, casually scrolling through your inbox suddenly feels like a fruitless exercise. What’s more, if you’re tracking your time for specific projects or clients then checking your emails is not something for which you can start the clock. That means every minute you spend reading your emails is eating into billable hours and is having no impact on your daily time tally. This is a fantastic deterrent for excessive email checking!

Time tracking will also highlight the gaps in your time. Are these gaps due to email? There’s nowhere to hide and cutting down on your email time will become a priority and will have a positive impact on your overall productivity.

6. Know when to switch off

The rise of smartphones has made it difficult to escape out of office emails and many people struggle to hit the off switch.

61% of managers say that technology has made it difficult to disconnect from work and more than half (54%) check their emails frequently when away from the office, according to the Chartered Management Institute’s 2016 Quality of working life survey.

The survey also found that 39% of managers agree that their employer should restrict out-of-hours email access, which would release the pressure to check emails at all times.

“Just because staff can always be online and contactable, it does not mean they should be. Those who struggle to switch off report lower personal productivity and job satisfaction, as well as experiencing greater stress levels.

Chartered Management Institute

Before you leave the office, turn off your email notifications on your phone or log out completely – that way – any work related buzz that might come through late at night or in the evening, won’t draw your attention and scupper your productivity long term.