There are thousands of productivity tricks, but only a few deliver outsized results. Since time and will-power are limited, it’s critical to find the levers that exert the most force.
Top of that list is surely email batching. The deceptively simple trick of checking email twice a day (and no more) has a dramatic impact on your work output.
Once you see the light, you’ll be amazed how your colleagues get any work done. It’s like a mail clerk appears every two minutes and shoves an envelope on their desk. It’s madness, yet nobody notices because it’s digital.
I’ve been email batching since I read The Four-Hour Work Week in my early twenties. Twelve years later, surprisingly few people have adopted the practice. Consequently it’s a great way to get ahead of the herd, with little effort and whole lot less stress.
Start by scheduling time for email in your calendar. I recommend two thirty-minute blocks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Make sure the morning slot is at least two hours after you start work.
These slots are the only time you’re allowed to read mail. Treat them like any other meeting - move them around if a clash occurs. Don’t be afraid to make people schedule meetings around your email time. It’s important.
Clean the slate
Email batching requires an empty inbox. If you have hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox, just move them to another folder. I use a “Misc” folder for everything I don’t want to explicitly file.
Going forward, we will process all the emails received each day, so there will never again be a huge pile in your inbox.
Process the batch
When it’s time to process emails, move the contents of your inbox to a folder calling “Processing”. If any emails arrive during your thirty-minute window, you will handle them in the next batch.
Working from oldest to newest, read each email thread and take one of the following actions:
- Delete – This should be the preferred option whenever possible. Most email is pointless and deciding to keep it, “just in case” is generally a waste of time and space.
- File – If the email contains useful information but you don’t need to respond, file it. Create folders for important projects and topics. For everything else, stuff it in the Misc folder we made earlier.
- Deflect – If you’re not the right person for this email, pass it over to them. Delegation is not just for managers.
- Reply – If you can respond to the email within 60 seconds, just get it done.
- Schedule – If you need to do some real thinking (or some actual work) before replying, then congratulations, you have a new task. Add it to your task list and file the email.
I recommend enabling threading/conversation-mode in the Processing folder, even if you don’t use that elsewhere. It helps you scan a conversation in context and take bulk actions.
Control your day
Unless you have an insane amount of email, you can complete batches within thirty minutes or less. You can spend the rest of the day focusing on stuff you think is important (rather than demands from your inbox).
Email batching has been the most important factor in my journey towards better productivity. It’s impossible to get meaningful work done unless you control a significant chunk of the time you spend in the office each day.
If you have any tips of your own for getting a better handle on a busy inbox, leave a comment below.