5 Email Hacks to Get Back Time

Think Outside the Inbox

Who's in control - you or your inbox?

Yesterday morning I received 356 emails. Within an hour, my inbox was empty.

I’m a huge fan of email. And anyone who works with me knows I’m prone to saying, “Flick me an email explaining what you want and I’ll come back to you.”

Want a meeting? Flick me an email outlining what we’re gonna discuss and what the objectives are. Want to chat about your big idea? Email me a set of bullet points and I tell you if I’m interested.

Too cold?

I don’t know, maybe. Perhaps you have more free time that me. Or you’re on a fixed salary, and chatting about the weather, the footy scores and the hot girl in accounting doesn’t impact your productivity enough for you to care.

But I value time more than anything. It’s the one thing I can’t make. No one can.

You’re probably thinking this is why I get so many damn emails – because I don’t want to talk to anyone! That might be part of the reason but still, I prefer it that way because, for me, email is an easy monster to manage.

For many people, it’s the opposite. Email is a huge problem for them; like social media. Some people live in their inbox; it’s their to-do list, their filing system and their master, all wrapped into one.

I used to pride myself on answering emails within 10 minutes. But it meant deferring my schedule, my work practices – effectively my life – to everyone else. About a year ago, I changed all this. I decided I wouldn’t let others determine my agenda anymore.

So I implemented a simple set of rules.

1. I only check email at 10:30 am, 2:30 pm and 4:30 pm.

This allows me to attack my number one objective straight after I wake. Instead of reacting to the whims of ‘urgent work’, I’m productive from the moment I make the first cup of tea, which is usually around 6:30 am. Do you know how much you can achieve when you tackle your number one objective for four straight hours straight out of the gate? This simple practice sets up the rest of my day with an enormous sense of accomplishment because I’ve already put a serious dent in the day’s work.

Doing my last check at 4:30 pm ensures last-minute requests are still handled before I shut down for the day, and it clears the decks for the next morning, too. It guarantees I’m not stewing over loose ends come evening because everything has already been dealt with. My mind is clear for doing stuff like writing. Or playing with my son.

2. Things that go ‘ping!’

I hate being pinged. I’m a reasonably intelligent and productive person. I want to do great work. I want that work to amaze and delight the people who pay me. The last thing I need is a machine pinging me every few minutes saying, “Look over here!” No thanks.

So there are no alerts, notifications or other ding-dings on my devices, except for SMS. I’ve got work to do.

3. My phone is for phone calls.

Okay, I use my phone for a billion other things, but email’s not one of them. Distraction is the GREATEST enemy of deep work. Multi-tasking is a myth. If you try to chase two rabbits, you end up with no rabbits. And if you allow your phone to push emails to you, you’re effectively breaking rules one, two and three.

If you need to reach me urgently, my phone still accepts phone calls.

4. Every Email is Actioned

When I check my mail, I sort them first by Subject. That way, the crap is easy to spot and delete. Seeya. Then, I sort them by Sender. Important people (clients, readers and suppliers – in that order) get my attention first. With each email I either:

  • Respond and file
  • Delegate, schedule a follow-up, and file
  • Forward, schedule a follow-up, and file
  • Delete

With those I delegate or forward, I also schedule a follow-up in my diary so the interested parties aren’t left hanging. As for filing, I’ve created a set of folders and sub-folders where everything I’ve dealt with lives. Nothing stays in my inbox. I deal with it, then I file it.

Finally, I sort the remaining items by Date Sent so I can address them in the order they left the sender’s keyboard. This is fair, I think. These are dealt with in the same way as the others – respond, delegate, forward or delete. Once they’re done, my inbox is empty.

5. Be clear and unambiguous.

Email is not the place for back and forth communication. Neither is SMS. Often, the quickest way to resolve an issue is over the phone with a bit of rapid-fire discussion. Likewise, emails shouldn’t be open-ended. If someone wants a meeting, I suggest two or three times on two or three different days. That way, they can pick one and we’re done. Also, if a question has a few possible answers and I think I know what they’ll be, I’ll mention all of them and ask them to choose. Wherever possible, I’m seeking a yes or a no – not another three questions.

With everything I tackle, I’m always thinking of three things:

  1. What’s the outcome I seek?
  2. What is the most productive thing I can do towards that objective right now?
  3. Does this lead me closer to the life I want or drag me further away from it?

Your time is valuable beyond measure, and to surrender control of it to something as innocuous as email is an affront to your existence. Too heavy? I don’t think so. I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll only get one shot at life, so I’ll be damned if I’ll squander even a minute of it.

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