Email is an essential part of our daily lives, but it can also be a significant source of stress. The constant influx of messages, the pressure to respond promptly, and the sheer volume of unread emails can quickly become overwhelming. Managing multiple email inboxes, filtering out spam, and keeping up with important communications require significant time and effort, often leading to anxiety and reduced productivity. In this post, I’m sharing a hack that can help you reclaim your time and focus from email chaos. 

In her insightful book Uptime: A Practical Guide to Personal Productivity and Wellbeing, Laura Mae Martin draws a compelling analogy between our relentless email-checking habits and a clothes dryer that’s never emptied. As professionals, we can all relate to this endless cycle of peeking into our inboxes, even when we know we’re too swamped to address the mountain of messages waiting within. It’s like glancing into that dryer, seeing a jumble of clothes that need folding, but deciding we’ll deal with it later. Think about it—why do we keep peeking in when we don’t have time to actually deal with what’s inside?

Martin’s approach is refreshing: treat your emails like laundry piles by sorting them into three categories—respond, read, revisit! Then, you can tackle each pile fully, like emptying that dryer. This simple yet powerful mindset shift, along with some inbox restructuring, can transform how we handle our emails.

Here are a few of my recommendations on how you can treat each email “pile” to finally reclaim your time and focus from email chaos:

Respond (Requires Action)

  • Set Aside Dedicated Time: Schedule specific blocks in your day solely for responding to emails that demand action.
  • The Two-Minute Rule: If an email can be replied to in two minutes or less, do it immediately.
  • Create Template Responses: Create templates for common replies to save time.
  • Use a Priority System: Not all “respond” emails are created equal. Flag or star the most urgent emails that need your immediate attention. These can be urgent client requests or time-sensitive questions from your team.
  • Delegate: If someone else on your team is better suited to respond, forward it along.
  • Say no (politely): If a request isn’t feasible, don’t let it linger in your inbox. Decline with a brief, respectful explanation.

Read (Informational)

  • Batch Processing: Set aside a specific time to read through newsletters, updates, and other informational emails.
  • Unsubscribe Ruthlessly: If you consistently don’t read a newsletter, unsubscribe to reduce clutter.
  • Preview Before Opening: For example, in Gmail, you can hover over an email to get a preview of its contents. This helps you prioritize.
  • Use Filters and Labels: Organize emails into categories like “Newsletters,” “Project Updates,” etc. This helps you quickly locate information later.
  • Skim Efficiently: Practice speed reading or skimming techniques to get the gist of an email quickly.
  • Use “Read-It-Later” Apps: Tools like Pocket or Instapaper can help you save articles for later reading.

Revisit (Needs Further Thought)

  • Snooze: If an email doesn’t require immediate action, snooze it for a later time or date. This clears it from your inbox temporarily.
  • Task Management: If an email leads to a task, add it to your to-do list instead of leaving it in your inbox as a reminder.
  • Schedule revisit times: Block off time in your calendar to specifically tackle this pile.
  • Create a “Revisit” Folder: Move emails that require more in-depth thought or action to a designated folder.
  • Set Reminders: If an email needs action at a specific time, set a calendar reminder to revisit it.
  • Regular Review and Clean-Up: Schedule a weekly review of your “Revisit” folder to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
  • Be honest with yourself: If you’ve been revisiting an email for weeks and haven’t taken action (procrastination alert!), consider what’s causing you to delay. You might be avoiding it for a good reason. Alternatively, you may decide that it no longer needs your response, in this case, you can delete it or archive it for a clean slate.

By restructuring our inboxes and dedicating specific time to each category, we can transform our email habits and reclaim your time and focus from email chaos. No more feeling overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of messages. It’s all about making email work for us, not the other way around.

Want more productivity tips? Read other articles in our Productivity Series:
Part 1: How to Accomplish More of the Things That Matter

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