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I still remember when getting an email was fun and exciting, like getting a handwritten note in the mail. Those days are over. Now I get between 50-100 emails per day. Sometimes it seems as if email is running my life. I struggle to make progress on the projects that are most important to me.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe you spend too much time on email, but don’t know how to change. Or perhaps you get distracted by email, and struggle to maintain focus on your key projects or task list.

In this blog post, I want to share 6 tips to help you win the email battle. If you put these tips into practice, you will be able to efficiently work through email and respond to people quickly. You can stop email from distracting you from important work projects. You will be able to use email to help your life, rather than letting email run your life.

Paradigm Shift

Before I share the 6 tips, I want to share a paradigm shift for how to think about email. A paradigm shift is a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions. If you only remember one thing about this blog post, this is the big one. If you only make one change in your email habits, this is the one to make. All 6 tips stem from this paradigm shift: Think of email as a task to be completed, rather than a chronic interruption on your time.

Often we work with our email open on our computer. We start working on a project, only to be interrupted by a notification telling us we have received a new email. We read the email, and think about how to respond. The email might be important, or it might not be important. The email might request something from us. If it does, we stop what we are doing and complete the request instead. The result of this pattern is we are consistently interrupted by email. If I receive 60 emails in an 8-hour workday, that’s one email interruption every 8 minutes. Research shows we struggle to regain focus once we are interrupted. Multitasking doesn’t result in better performance. It’s better to focus on one thing at a time. Consistent email interruptions destroy our focus and productivity.

This paradigm shift re-frames email from a chronic interruption to a task to be completed. A task has a firm beginning and end point. A task is something we check off and are done with for the day. After we finish a task, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and we stop thinking and worrying about it. It is possible to do email this way.

6 Tips for Winning the Email Battle

Now that we understand the paradigm shift, here are 6 tips for winning the email battle:

1. Schedule a specific time each day to respond to email

Put email into your schedule like you would a meeting with a colleague. For example, depending on your schedule, you might schedule 1-1:30 PM as your time to respond to emails. If you need two time periods to respond to email, you might schedule one time in the morning (e.g., 10-10:30 AM) and one time in the afternoon (e.g., 4-4:30 PM). When it is your time to do email, focus on that task. Put away all other distractions, and work through your email inbox. Be as quick and efficient as possible.

2. During all other times, NO EMAIL

During all other times, don’t respond or check your email. Don’t have your email open on your computer. Don’t check email on your phone. Turn off email notifications. As challenging as it may be at first, use your discipline and wait to check email during your scheduled time.

3. Finish one important task before checking email

Most people check their email first thing in the morning. This is a bad idea. If you do this, you are setting yourself up for failure and distraction. Instead, finish one important task first thing in the morning. I like to check my email in the early afternoon, and use my morning to complete one important task. Completing one important task at the start of your day will give you a sense of accomplishment that sets the tone for the rest of your day. Completing one important task first thing in the morning will also ensure you at least get one thing done each day, even if you receive an important email that you need to address.

4. When responding to email, use the “WTF” approach

When I’m working through email, I use a strategy I call the “WTF” approach. Most people read their emails multiple times, and don’t respond right away. This is a huge waste of time, because you end up doing the same thing (i.e., reading the email) over and over again. Instead, a better strategy is to respond right away using the “WTF” approach. When I read an email, I make a decision and do one of three things immediately:

  • Write: Option 1 is to write a response. Think about how you would like to respond to the email, and then write a response right away. After you write a response, trash or file the email.
  • Trash: Option 2 is to trash the email. If the email isn’t important, or you don’t want to respond, delete it and be done with it. If you wrote a response and don’t need to save the email, trash it.
  • File: Option 3 is to file the email. If you need more time to think about the email, file the email. Make good use of your folders and have one labeled “Respond Later.” If you wrote a response and want to save the email, file it. I have folders to file emails from various people in my life (e.g., students, journals, collaborators, etc.).

5. Use email signatures to save common emails

You may have certain types of emails that you send regularly. For example, I often get emails from students asking whether I plan to take a graduate student to work with me in the upcoming application cycle, or to describe my research interests in more detail. I can save a common email as an email signature, and personalize as needed.

6. Train the people in your life to accept your email pace

When I talk to people about email, they often make the point that their job moves at such a fast pace that they need to respond to email right away. I suppose there might be exceptional circumstances where this may be the case. But in most cases, the reality is that immediate responding is not necessary. Rather, people are used to having you respond right away, so it seems like they need an immediate response. But in most cases, the world does not end if you don’t respond to an email right away. If you use the strategy I suggested, you will still be able to respond to every email within 24 hours, which I think is a reasonable time frame.

Discussion

What do you think of the paradigm shift of thinking about email as a task to complete rather than a chronic interruption? What do you think of the 6 email tips? What struggles have you had in changing the way you do email? What has been most helpful for you in winning the email battle?