Without looking, guess how many emails are in your inbox. Chances are good that you have a few more emails than you’d like. You may have read about ways of handling email so that you’re not always behind. Here’s a three-part approach to gaining control over your inbox and increasing your productivity.
1. Use your drafts folder — a lot. Here’s an inbox triage system I’ve used every day for more than a decade. Go to your inbox, and open the oldest email there. If you have emails from before today, just start with today’s batch.) While you’re reviewing that individual email ask yourself: “Trash? File? Reply? Forward?” If it’s for trashing or filing, do it now.
If you need to act on it, start a draft by clicking the button to either reply or forward. Then, choose to “Save as draft.” Then move that email out of your inbox. (The draft is waiting for you, over in the drafts folder, remember?) You can file it, trash it or print it, just don’t leave it in the inbox.
Adopt this approach to your inbox, and you will have filed and trashed a bunch of emails and every email you need to reply to or forward will be in the drafts folder, oh, and your inbox should be empty!
2. Dedicate 15-minute blocks to focusing on just your drafts folder. When it comes to productivity, focus is more important than time. Consider: How hard has it become to follow a thought all the way to completion before someone (or an email or instant message) interrupts you? Intense focus and deep thinking is a skill that, through practice, can be honed. Here’s how you can start to master your email monster by using those 15 minutes of heightened focus.
Buy a kitchen timer. Don’t try to use a clock or the countdown timer on your phone — it’s too close to your email inbox on your phone. Set your timer for 15 minutes. Now focus just on your drafts folder for those 15 minutes. Get as many of those emails sent as possible.
OK, so while your drafts folder is getting smaller, your inbox is bound to get bigger. But you’re not getting distracted after every email you send by new messages. And you’ll get more done.
3. Find a way to escalate high-priority messages. Talk with the people you work with about how to call attention to matters that need an immediate response. In other words, answer this question: “When someone needs something ‘right away,’ how do we ask for them to help us?”
For example, you might decide that if something can wait for hours or even a day or two, to send your message by email. If something needs a faster response, consider using the phone, text, instant message or a “tap on the shoulder.” Then, of course, if you need a trail, send an email.
Try a five-day experiment with just one or two people on your team, people you work well with. You’re likely to find that the more you practice these techniques, the more efficient and productive you’ll become.