When I’m drowning in email—which happens most weekdays—I write out the following on my daily plan:

☐ Process office email (5)

This means I’m going to read the 5 oldest emails in my inbox and either reply or archive each one, extracting any tasks along the way. Each email successfully processed earns me a little hash mark, and then I get to check the whole thing off:

☑ Process office email (5) ||||

This simple hack is what keeps me on top of my work email. The prospect of clearing out my inbox is too daunting—I just can’t do it. But I can process 5 emails, or 10, or sometimes 15. And at the end of the day, if I’ve done this a few times, I’m usually back in control of my inbox. Without this approach, I’d be hopelessly behind or stressed out of my gourd.

It’s not the most sophisticated approach, I admit. But at the risk of sounding a little too self-satisfied, let me tell you something: I’ve been working hard on productivity and self-improvement since 2010, and in the decade since, my professional productivity has probably tripled. And those results have come mostly through implementing a few broad strategies (track everything in an external system, work deeply, time block each day) and lots of goofy little tactics like this one. My productivity has skyrocketed, but my self-discipline has barely improved. I’ve just learned how to get myself to work hard (and how to make hard work enjoyable).

It’s hard to change ourselves. Much easier to work with what we’ve got.