For better or worse, email is woven into the fabric of our professional lives. It’s the primary communication medium for most organizations and individual professionals, and it’s quick, low-friction, and universal.
It’s also a time vampire, as most of us spend much more time and energy on email than we should. We check our email compulsively, though email is mostly associated with low-importance, administrative work. Our best work—the work that only we can do, that creates value in the marketplace—takes place outside our inbox. Yet we can’t ignore email altogether. We need an email strategy, but few of us have one.
This is a problem, because without a well-defined plan for interfacing with email, we’re prone to overuse it. The average professional “checks their email” at will, opening their email client or pulling out their smartphone whenever they feel the need (or the compulsion).
“Checking email” is a subpar approach, for four main reasons (in a moment, I’ll suggest an alternative).
Problems with "checking email"
- Checking email fragments our day. Our best work requires long stretches of focused thinking. Frequent, unscheduled email checks break these periods up into short, near-useless chunks of time (akin to three-inch lengths of dental floss).
- Checking email is addictive. Email operates on what behavioral psychologists call an intermittent reinforcement schedule, which is the same strategy employed by Las Vegas casinos to keep us pulling the slot machine handle. Sometimes when we check our email, we have messages (Brain: "Ooh, dopamine hit!"). Other times, we don’t (Brain: "Aww, no dopamine. Maybe next time").
- Checking email is not systematic. Well-designed personal systems put our behavior on rails so we’re not tempted to act in the short run in a way that harms us in the long run. Compulsive email checking sacrifices long-term productivity for instant gratification. As we'll see in a moment, "there's a system for that."
- Checking email creates open loops. Productivity guru David Allen coined the term open loop: an outcome we’ve committed to but haven’t yet made a plan to achieve. Casually checking our email many times a day leads to many such open loops, as we become aware of new obligations before we're able to do anything about them. Open loops erode our concentration.
Checking email may be a popular approach, but it’s a pretty poor way of interacting with this digital tool. Try processing email instead.
How to process your email
Processing email is a simple, well, process: swoop in at a scheduled time, extract tasks from any new email messages, archive those messages, and get out.
- Schedule email sessions. While planning your day, build in as many email sessions as are necessary for you to do your job well (anywhere from twice a day to once an hour). Outside of those times, don't open your email. This is easier said than done, but keeping email closed boosts focus and therefore productivity.
- Ask "What's the next action?" Each email message represents some outcome you're committed to—something you have to do—or else it doesn't. For each email that requires some action from you, extract the to-do/next action, add it to the appropriate list, and archive the email. Don't let it sit in your inbox once it's been dealt with.
- Work oldest to newest. Process one message at a time, working from back to front. No skipping!
- Aggressively unsubscribe. Your email is a gateway to your attention—one of your most valuable resources. The list of people and companies with access to your attention should be accordingly short.
If you execute this process regularly—even just once or twice a day—you can tame your email and live comfortably in the state known as “inbox zero.” Inbox zero is everything they say.
Essentially, I’m suggesting you treat email more like snail mail and less like text messaging. While email might not be optional, we do get to choose how we use it. For best results, let’s interact with it less often and on our terms.