Poor email usage is without a doubt the #1 time killer for white-collar workers. If you get this right you’ll be ahead of 50-90% of the other people dependent on your industry and level of seniority. To better emphasize the issue, consider this study: In 2005, King’s College performed an experimental IQ test between 3 groups. Group A performed the test with no distractions. Group B did the test, but were distracted by email and phone calls. Group C did the test and smoked weed. Guess what? The group of stoners outperformed the email group by 6 points.
The #1 hack I have found that no one talks about: synchronizing email manually
This is a big claim and I’ll back it up right here. Not only do bad email habits consume more time, they also mess with your focus. That’s double trouble. You will spend more time on email and be less efficient when you are not dealing with it, as well. This is what scientists call “Cognitive Switching Penalty”. Most people can barely focus more than 90 minutes a day. If you’re good you’ll get to 3 hours. Maybe after years you might get to something like 6 hours. But most people never make it past the 90-minute mark – especially in today’s world of social media and instant messaging distractions.
Want further evidence of how important (and rare) focused work is for your productivity (output/input ratio)? Here are the three best books that I found on the subject:
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Focus by Daniel Goleman
Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher
Before implementing manual sync, it’s key to understand that in most jobs you can easily go 1–3 hours without synchronizing email; let me emphasize, easily. That should be the norm, not the exception. In some days, 1 or 2 syncs are all you need – or can manage. What most people fail to grasp is that processing email is a task by itself and should be given full attention just like anything else. If you are doing something else, you should focus on that. Avoid checking your email every couple of minutes. You should not be thinking about it while doing something else; that’s focus. Don’t mix it with email and vice versa.
In this case, the two-minute rule from David Allen is very useful. If an email takes less than 2 minutes to deal with, do it right away. This is more effective than adding it to a task manager or marking it otherwise. Actually, depending on how much time and energy you have, you might want to adapt the 2 minutes to anywhere between 30 seconds or 5 minutes. Remember, the aim is to work through your email pile as efficiently as possible. This is for psychological benefits and for efficiency gains. Keep “difficult” emails for when you can give them your full attention. Attacking them right away only breaks your rhythm and makes email seem like more of an issue. If changing to manual sync seems tough, then try some other methods to “slow down your email”.
4 Methods for slowing down your email (and why manual synchronizing wins)
Here you have the training wheels, how they can help you and why you’ll miss-out by not fully transitioning to manual synch.
Sync Frequency Settings
Adjust these to suit your approach. You might want to start with 30 minutes and slowly increase in 15-minute increments up to 90 minutes.
Where it falls short:
If we go by Murphy’s Law, it will sync at inappropriate times such as in the middle of a presentation you are holding before running to the next meeting. The stiffness of the method can very well backfire. Breaking your own rules will only encourage you to do it more often, getting you closer back at where you started.
They can be very useful. The two types of filters mostly adopted are:
CC filter (if you are copied into a lot of emails, then definitely do that)
Sender filter (I’d actually suggest using search folders, so all emails land in your inbox)
This is usually enough for 90% of people. If you haven’t set-up any filters yet, start with these two. Then wait a month before bothering with other filters. This method ensures that a fair share of emails land in the filters. You can then check once or twice a day, and be done with it.
Where it falls short:
Maybe you see lots of emails coming in. This may cause some anxiety, and compel you to break your rule of infrequent checking. Also, if you are tired or uninspired, you might use these emails as a way to feel productive. Take a break instead or do something else which requires less energy, mental capacity and willpower.
This one is simple and short. Just wait for emails to accumulate and then process them together.
Where if falls short:
You rely on willpower and discipline to avoid working on emails individually. This wastes energy and impairs your focus—especially if the subject lines and sender names make you worried.
Closing the Email Application
This is actually a beautiful one and can work. Sometimes you might just want to do that when you know that you won’t get to email anyway. Let’s say you are running to an important client meeting and need to finalize your proposal. No matter what someone writes you it won’t change your course of action.
Where it falls short:
This method ignores the importance of email as a reference tool. Saving all attachments into folders, or organizing them outside your email client (for example, into Evernote) is not effective. People who say this are either clueless or trying to sell you some software. Just study how to use the email search function, how to sort tags/categories and how to go through the search folders of whatever email tool you are using, and you’ll be good to go.
I hope the above shows why manual sync is the single most effective method in email management. Personally, I sync my email between 1 and 4 times a day. People who need to sync more often tend to be in customer service or otherwise specific roles. People who sync less often are what I call “Email Unicorns”.
Neil Strauss – 1x per day, but there is more to it…
He wrote seven New York Times bestsellers, the most well-known being The Game, Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. He checks email once every evening. This is nothing new, you might think. You can do that with manual sync, too. What makes him different is that his wife is the only person who has his Gmail password! She logs him in the evening with a time-limit of 60 minutes for dealing with email. He is an author and his main delivery is a finished manuscript which does not require many emails in between. The best authors are usually very diligent about email, but this just brings it to a whole other level.
Tim Ferriss – once a week for two hours
This dude hit the productivity space like nothing else with his book: The 4-Hour Work Week. It’s one of my all-time favorites, with lessons learned that I still use today. In the book he writes about how he checked email for two hours once a week. He had lots of automation in place (like auto-responders, etc) and an assistant processing and summarizing the key points of the most crucial emails while debriefing him over a short phone call. Of course, he had his own business with a very specific business model, which allowed him to do that. For most people that won’t be possible, but the book still offers lessons on productivity, business and life in general.
Christopher Nolan – Never used email in his life
He is one of the highest-grossing movie directors in history—in the same league as Steven Spielberg. In an interview in 2015 he said:
“Well, I’ve never used email because I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing. I just couldn’t be bothered about it.”
By the way, he also has no cellphone. From a professional point of view, his case is similar to Neil Strauss’s—just more extreme. Looking at it from this perspective, most authors and people in professions of similar characteristics could probably get away without email if they wanted to. Although the point is not to minimize email time for the sake of it. Instead, it’s about weighing the pros and cons based on your situation, personal preferences and working style.
I’d like to issue three different challenges, depending on where you are at with your email management.
Tell us why you think this method is not possible for you. I don’t have all the answers, but maybe other readers can help you.
The shocked ones:
It took me a long way to get where I am at in terms of email management. I think there is still quite a way to go. If anything, I have empathy for slow change. We all juggle multiple things and need more time for certain things. Does that sound like you? Pick one of the four alternatives for slowing down your email. Experiment with it, and let us know how it went.
The bold ones:
Alright, you wanted it, so… turn off automatic email sync. If you’re not sure how, Google it or ask a friendly IT person. Sync it manually when you intend to deal with new items. Take a piece of paper and log the times you synced your email. If you are willing to, please share your log after the first week and how you felt about it. If you find the exercise helpful, do it for another three weeks and report the changes. The log should look very different! You’ll have digested the new process better – mentally and emotionally.
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Author: Guilherme Nunes
Growthhacker at Reflectapp.io - Evernote-Addon to Review & Memorize Notes in a systematic manner. They solve a common frustration of continuous accumulation of notes without putting them ever to use.