Opening your email can feel like opening one of those Russian nesting dolls—just when you think you must be at the end, more messages seem to sprout from nowhere. But trying to solve the problem can be daunting. In other words, going on the hunt for email productivity hacks is a productivity-killer itself. With so much advice, where do you start? And what happens when you’re getting mixed messages (pun intended)? Luckily, plenty of actual researchers have put their minds to solving the time-consuming inbox problem with some seriously helpful daily productivity hacks. (Because even they’re not immune to the tyranny of endless email notifications).
Let’s take a look at just how long we’re spending in the inbox-hole and five research-backed ways to get that time back.
How Much Time Do We Spend on Email?
Think your time spent on email is insignificant? Think again. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates that their colleagues spend an average of 28 percent of their entire week in the quest to get to inbox zero. If you’re clocking 40 hours, that’s over 11 hours spent on email per week. And unfortunately, email probably isn’t going away. We’re expected to have sent almost 250 billion emails by 2019, according to an estimate from technology market research firm The Radicati Group.
Even reducing that time by a fraction can give you hours of your week back. Hours better spent on important work. Or with important people. These productivity hacks can help you get there.
5 Email Productivity Hacks To Reclaim Your Time Now
Here are five ways to get in, get out, and get on with your day.
1. Make a motivating routine to push through email pain
We’re not going to even pretend to tell you to get excited about answering emails. It’s not happening; we get it. But you can get excited about something else—and use that as a way through your inbox. The first of our email productivity hacks? Establish a motivating routine. Consistently doing this before starting a task you’re dreading or finding difficult to do regularly (read: finally responding to emails) can help you be more productive, according to research from the Center for Advanced Hindsight.
In the study, behavioral economics researchers looked at the power of a “motivating routine” to help users stick to their exercise goals. Their rituals included stretching, mindfulness, and counting. Across the board, the participants who were assigned a ritual reported exercising more and wanting to engage in activity more as compared to the control group who didn’t have a pre-workout ritual. And these effects were even bigger for those who chose their own ritual as opposed to those who were assigned one. Researchers theorized that having a choice made the ritual more meaningful.
How does this apply to email again? Actually, quite directly. The researchers suggest the findings are broadly applicable. In other words, first doing a motivating ritual like listening to your favorite news podcast or doing a five-minute meditation might help you muscle through the “psychological pain” of getting through your inbox. The choice is yours—which means you’ll reap maximum benefits.
2. Screen your emails to avoid massive time costs
Email often has a hidden, time-consuming cost. Namely, its ability to pull you away from whatever you’re doing the second you see a new message pop up. Even if that message is unimportant. You might not even realize how quickly you’re conditioned to drop everything and open an incoming email. A 2002 study found that 70 percent of emails are opened within six seconds of landing in your inbox. Six. Seconds.
Turns out, those little distractions are probably a lot more costly than you think. Based on a series of studies, researcher Gloria Mark found that switching gears cost people an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to what they were doing pre-interruption. While that might be appropriate for a time-sensitive email from your boss or a response from the client you just pitched, the rest of the non-urgent notices in your inbox probably aren’t worth the distraction.
Instead of answering every email as it comes in, screen by sender and subject line. If it’s not pressing, don’t even open it until you take a designated email break. Which brings us to one of the best productivity hacks for your inbox…
3. Set email “office hours”
Instead of tackling emails as they come in, research suggests that you set up specific “office hours” to address your inbox. Productivity researchers call this “batching”. The technique led to an increase in the feeling of productivity for people whose inboxes routinely get inundated in a 2016 study by productivity researcher, Gloria Mark. Block off chunks of time in your calendar each day to read and respond to those non-urgent emails. But users, beware. This works better at certain times of the day than others.
4. …just don’t make them in the morning
The first two hours after you become fully awake are your most productive, says renowned behavioral economist and psychology researcher, Dan Ariely. Using them for one of the more mindless items on the to-do list (e.g., answering email) is a waste of precious productivity time. In a 2015 Ask Me Anything on Reddit, he wrote,
One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don’t require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.”
This is one of those productivity hacks that requires you to know yourself and your habits. First, figure out when your peak window of productivity occurs and then, protect it. Rather than burning your most efficient fuel of the day on emails, schedule your email office hours during times when your energy naturally dips. For example, if you’re guilty of regularly cruising Instagram as a brain break, use that time to scan through email blasts and newsletters instead.
5. Turn off phone alerts
On the surface, it might seem like getting email notifications on your phone is itself one of the best productivity hacks. This way, you’ll squeeze every available second out of the day while answering incoming emails en route to the bathroom. Well, sure, you could technically do that. But chances are your constantly buzzing phone is more likely to distract you from the task at hand.
A landmark productivity study conducted by Stanford University researchers in 2009 found that people who use more than one device at a time—dubbed “media multitaskers”—are much more vulnerable to distraction. Remember, “just sending one quick response” costs an average of over 20 minutes in distraction time. Pare back your phone alerts to help you stay on track and productive.
To sum it all up…
Improve your focus, get your time back, and boost your productivity all by using a better approach to your email. Keep these science-backed email productivity hacks on hand when you’re feeling overwhelmed with your inbox.
- Create a ritual that’s meaningful to you before doing the inbox dive.
- Screen your emails by subject and sender to avoid productivity-killing time-costs, as in 23+ minutes per distraction.
- Set a specific time per day just for emails…otherwise, stay away from your inbox.
- Schedule that time when your brain is tired. Aka don’t waste the hours your brain works best on email.
- Shut off notifications on your phone/tablet/computer, and use one electronic device at a time for better focus.
Your turn: What are your best productivity hacks for your inbox? Tell us what we missed in the comments.
Want more research-backed productivity hacks? Check out these 72 Tools to Overcome Procrastination + Improve Productivity.
Author: Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance writer and content strategist. When she doesn’t have her nose in a research journal or the New York Times, she’s likely to be found looking for punny greeting cards or an excuse to explore a new travel spot.
Nathan saysJuly 24, 2018 at 11:05 am
The two tips given to me that have been most impactful: turn off ALL new message notifications (spoken to in this article) and set Outlook to open in my calendar, not my inbox. Thus the first thing I look at and think about is my schedule, not getting sucked into my inbox.
Chelsey Taylor saysJuly 25, 2018 at 7:51 am
Thanks for the comment, Nathan! We agree with both of those tips. We try to use our early hours to get deep work done and leave the inbox tasks to later in the day when our brains are feeling a little more fatigued. Your tip about opening your calendar prior to your inbox is a great one, and thanks again for sharing it with us and other readers.
Amy saysJuly 30, 2018 at 11:44 am
Another great way to minimize the email time vacuum is to unsubscribe to anything that is unwanted immediately.
Chelsey Taylor saysJuly 30, 2018 at 6:49 pm
Thanks, Amy! That’s a great tip. There are some tools that can make unsubscribing easier by essentially doing the work for you. A productivity tool for a productivity hack? Count us in.
Emily saysJuly 31, 2018 at 12:03 am
Sanebox cost me money, but it saves me an amazing amount of time each week. I only let a tiny percentage of emails into my actual inbox. The rest end up being saved for later. Then I can figure out what I want to stop receiving!
Chelsey Taylor saysJuly 31, 2018 at 8:11 am
Thanks for the tip, Emily! This is a great tool. We’ll revisit this list after the post has been up for a while, and I think adding a filter your inbox tip is a great addition. I’ll be sure to mention this tool when we do so. Thanks again!
Richard saysDecember 6, 2018 at 12:30 pm
In addition to these I have found a really good piece of advice is to minimize the methods of communication (so I avoid wasting time switching and monitoring multiple sources- messenger etc). I use the phone as much as possible
(and face to face if in the office) as I find speaking to be so much more efficient with the benefit of building relationships at the same time. I include in my office email signature that the most effective way to communicate with me is to call my cell (and put it on my out of office when I am out of office). If someone sends me an email (when I read it) I call them to demonstrate that calls work and sow the seed in their mind. Emails have a purpose for sending documents and documenting what has been discussed on the phone etc. but I am getting away from it as the primary communication tool. I am free from constantly monitoring emails as if someone needs me they call me and vice versa. I quote Roman J Israel Esq. and advise that ” emails don’t go directly to my brain” so I don’t know what is in your email but what do you need. I have told my family (and golf buddies) to call me or text me (I will then keep a look out for texts as I know they will be important and will be things I need to know and act on quickly. Paying for the cost is well worth the efficiency and sanity savings.
Chelsey Taylor saysDecember 7, 2018 at 11:12 am
Thanks, Richard! These are excellent tips, both from a productivity standpoint and also from a relationship-building standpoint. Thanks so much for sharing them! We might use a few ourselves. 🙂
Mike Nelson saysJanuary 26, 2019 at 5:01 am
Can I also point you to my app, Speaking Email, which lets you check your email while doing other things by reading out the email content (minus the clutter) and giving you voice commands to manage your mail. I hope you will consider including this in any updated article you may write. We are at http://speaking.email
Chelsey Taylor saysJanuary 28, 2019 at 10:40 am
Thanks so much for the comment, Mike! That app sounds like a great addition to our article. If we happen to make updates and include it, I’ll let you know.