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Lab Rat: Does A Balanced Email Diet = More Focus & Productivity?

Is “Inbox Zero” the right goal? We take a break from all-day email snacking, and experiment with checking just twice a day.

If I had to identify the single greatest offender when it comes to reactionary workflow – a passive approach to work where our priorities are ruled entirely by incoming communications – email would be the obvious choice. Empowered by the alluring goal of “Inbox Zero,” we feel a sense of accomplishment in tending to a constant stream of incoming (but not very important) requests. It’s the Inbox Hero Mentality: “I may not be making any headway on my to-do list, but I’ll be damned if there’s one message lying in wait!”
You’re probably nodding your head in agreement. Everyone knows email is a distraction. But why don’t we do anything about it? Perhaps it’s because we secretly like the distraction. As Tom Davenport noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “There is the everlasting hope of something new and exciting. Our work and home lives can be pretty boring, and we’re always hoping that something will come across the ether that will liven things up.”

In short, email is a double-edged sword. It’s a primary business tool we can’t live without, but it’s also a primary driver of distraction. The dilemma is
clear, but how to navigate it? An anxious inbox-refresher myself, I decided to try checking my email just twice a day to strike the right balance.I decided to try checking my email just twice a day to strike the right balance.

The Fallout

Did I say not checking the Internet after work was hard? Not checking my email during work may have been even harder. If only because of the peer pressure of a group of colleagues that expect you to be on point (Example: “Did you get my email?”… “No? Oh…”)However, after getting over the initial shock of ignoring the constant stimulation our inboxes provide, I found myself noticeably more productive. Taking a full hour at the beginning of the workday and 30 minutes at the end (versus, say, 5 minutes every half hour), created a focused, mindful practice in which I was able to devote full attention to offline tasks.

It also resulted in a number of observations about how constant email checking distorts our perceptions of what’s urgent and what’s important.

Here are a few realizations:

The more you give, the more you get.  When you send out three emails on a single subject, you’re bound to get three (or more) in return. It’s much more effective to let a conversation unfold over the course of a day and respond to it in entirety later. Or, if you’re lucky, watch the dilemma work itself out without any intervention from you.

Most emails just aren’t that important. Of the many emails that awaited me every morning, I’d say a good 60% were just FYIs. The other 30% required quick action (a one-sentence response, a forward, or downloading for reference), and only 10% required extensive follow-up.

The speed and nature of your replies set expectations. If your colleagues, employees, and boss start to see you consistently returning emails within 24 hours (not 24 seconds), they’ll back off on the barrage of requests.

The only way to gain true peace of mind is to close your email completely. It requires an obscene amount of discipline to not dip into your inbox on a whim. At the very least, turn off mobile alerts and keep your client minimized.

Setting up a system is necessary. This was the biggest revelation of the exercise for me. Given the increase in email volume we’ve all experienced in the past 5-10 years, it’s no longer enough to just “check” or not check your email – you need an organizational system.

It’s no longer enough to just “check” or not check your email – you need an organizational system.

Without a process for dealing with incoming messages, 100 emails at 8:30am can seem a bit daunting. You’ll need to experiment with what works best for you, but here’s a quick sketch of the system I developed:

1) Filters

We all receive several emails a day that will be fun to peruse later, but don’t require immediate attention. Use your mail client to set up folders/labels, and then auto-filter to have those emails sent directly to the specified locations (I use “Social” and “Newsletters”). Set a time to sort through each.

See: Gmail Filters |Outlook Rules

2) Folders

I crafted a fairly simple system for sorting email based on the Action Method. Create 3 labels/folders titled Action Steps, Backburner, and Delegated. As you process your emails, sort each into the proper label/folder, based on the following:

Action Steps – tasks that need to be completed within 24 hours

Backburner – tasks that require review or non-urgent follow-up (within 72 hrs)

Delegated – tasks that require a response/action from someone else

– for non-task-oriented emails just label them and file immediately.

See: Gmail Mutiple Inboxes

3) Timing

Every morning, I block out time on my calendar exclusively for email review. I look through emails that have come in overnight and direct them into the appropriate inbox or folder for future action.

Once my inbox is completely empty, I set to work on Action Steps, making sure that they are all completed and followed up on. Then, I quickly browse the Backburners for tasks that have come up for review. If a Backburner email is over 3 days old, I’ll reassess its importance and add it to my task management software for even later review.

Finally, I’ll sort through my Delegated emails, pinging the recipient on any that have been dormant for over one week. If I have time, I will dip back into email for 5 minutes in the middle of the day, but only to quickly scan for fires and sort messages into their respective folders. At the end of the day, I’ll do a final review of my messages, and completely clear out the Inbox and Action Steps folder.

I’m still reaching Inbox Zero, but I’m also getting more done than just keeping up my email correspondence.

Comments (8)
  • Howie Chang

    Thanks. This article forces me to deal with my “Inbox Hero Mentality” and start making real headway.

  • Web Designer

    Thanxz!!! This will help BIGTIME!!! 🙂

  • John

    This is so true – I really noticed how distracting email / twitter / facebook / vimeo etc can be when our office interent went down for a day.

    Me and my colleague were working on a written proposal when the web went down. For the rest of the afternoon Word was the only thing on the screen, we stopped all off topic conversation – you know, things like ‘hey check out this new video by so and so..’

    We need the internet of course, but a little discipline and some kind of system can work wonders for productivity.

  • Mingly

    Couldn’t agree with you more on the cult of inbox zero. I’ve tried the action inbox method as well with a gmail plugin but found it hard to stick to.

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  • Nick Hevelian

    If you need an organizational system for email then you should seriously checkout SaneBox which has excellent tools for dealing with this. It works much better than GMail’s Priority Inbox as it is smart enough to distinguish between individual and bulk mail from the same domain (eg You can try setting up filters also but then you need to set up an awful lot of filters to get it right. SaneBox trains itself over time in a much simpler way.

  • Helen Young

    This is an excellent plan of action… one I sorely need. I have 7595 messages in my inbox right now, 60 new this morning (still 27 unread) and it’s only 12 minutes into my work day. I need email management help so I can get back to doing what I do best: designing. Thanks for this article.

  • MasteringEmail

    Nice job Brittany. Email controls most of us and that wastes not only the company time for which you are being paid, it wastes precious personal time. Keep shouting out! My best, Bob

  • Ellis Thomas

    Today the world has touched so much complicacy that only an email is not gonna match the case and sort out the work. With the same some other features as well makes the difference and that is some what which matters a lot in the so called life of task management.

    If we look out to the process in a cleaned manner then the task management is some what which makes sense for a life strategy. The more dedicated the task management is the more perfect will be the end result.

    In this contemporary planet we have been using task management software from Replicon – that is hassle free and manages well enough for a better task management along with email configuration, time management and at the end of the day it delivers a perfect and prominent result known as the productivity.

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