Productivity Series: Managing Your Inbox

Why You're Not Actually Multi-Tasking

As you can tell from some of my previous posts, I’m very interested in productivity. With the growing demands of our jobs, our side hustles, and our families, it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by all that we need to get done. Our workloads aren’t getting any lighter, so the only way we can avoid the all-nighters followed by inevitable burnout is to work smarter, not harder.

My posts for the next few weeks will be dedicated to just that: working smarter, not harder. My goal is to liberate you from the overflowing inbox, the back-to-back meetings, and the late nights on the laptop. You’ll be surprised at how changing just a few small habits can help you accomplish more, in less time.

I also put together a handy resource guide, highlighting some of my favorite productivity tools:

Let’s start with the inbox.

Depending on your industry and position at your company, you probably receive anywhere from 50-100 emails a day. According to a recent study, users on average receive 76 legitimate emails (i.e.; not spam), per day. If you’re a journalist, public figure, or someone else high in demand, that number exponentially increases. Most of us walk into work and have dozens of emails in our inbox, even though we were at inbox zero the night before. And then when we start rigorously clearing those messages and responding to the ones we can, more start coming in. The vicious cycle needs to stop.

I know many people who have adopted Tim Ferris’s advice of checking email only twice a day and love it. They’re able to use their time more wisely and really focus on the tasks at hand. But as a publicist, that strategy isn’t necessarily feasible. I have media contacts working on tight deadlines and if I miss their email, I also miss the opportunity. I also monitor media coverage for our clients, so if a story is breaking, I need to know about it in the moment. Since popping into my inbox only twice a day isn’t a possibility, I had to figure out another way to manage.

The big shift I made earlier this year (after seeing Chris Bailey of The Productivity Project speak at a conference) was acknowledging that checking email was different than addressing email. I have my email on in the background, pop in a couple times an hour, do a quick scan, but if there’s nothing pressing, I go back to my project.

I understand why this system won’t work for everyone. It’s the same reason alcoholics can’t go to bars; even just opening the door to your inbox and getting a whiff of those emails may send you clear off the wagon. The “twice a day” rule is easier because it’s definitive and final, not up to interpretation. But if you’re able to calibrate your gauge and be thoughtful about which emails are truly pressing and which aren’t, then it is possible to monitor your email all day, but only address it a couple times each day.

Here are some things I ask myself if I see an email and think it may be urgent:

If I wait an hour to respond, what will happen? If the media opportunity may be gone or the person asking a question will be unavailable in the next hour, then I respond. If the worst thing that will happen is that the sender may get impatient, then I wait. Too often, we view the urgency of others as our urgency. We’re quick to respond to the fire drills of others. But to maintain your productivity (and your sanity!) it’s important to separate your needs or the needs of the project from the needs of others.

How long will a thoughtful response take? You may think that if the message can be addressed swiftly that you should take care of it in the moment. Wrong! If the response may just be a couple of sentences, then what’s stopping you from putting it off to the end of the day? If a response requires more research and thought, then you may consider addressing sooner rather than later so you’re not rushing at the end of the day to answer all their questions.

Are there other emails in my inbox related to the same client or project? Some people answer their email in the order in which they came in, but I answer emails based on the client or project. This often allows me to consolidate responses and rather than opening and closing files and browser tabs, I can do everything at once and then move on to the next project. If the 10 emails in my inbox all pertain to the same project, then I may consider hopping on to take care of the batch.

Many of you may be thinking, “But if I don’t get back to clients right away, they’ll be upset! They may even fire me!” It’s true, you may have the occasional client who views you as not communicative enough and finds it frustrating when you don’t respond to their emails instantaneously. And honestly, that’s not a client you want. You want clients who give you the space to produce quality work for them. You don’t want the people who email you dozens of times a day and then call you when you don’t respond within the hour. Quality clients hire people who do quality work, and while I’m not saying you can go days without responding to them, the speed at which you reply to an email shouldn’t determine your job security.

A quick example of this: If you ask any of our clients, they’ll tell you that I don’t check email on weekends. If you ask my wife, she’ll tell you differently. I check email, but I don’t respond unless it is a true emergency. And since my clients don’t receive emails from me over the weekend (because truly, there are very few author emergencies), they assume I don’t check email. You set other people’s expectations, and if you establish that you can decipher the true fire drills from the things that can wait an hour, or better yet, until Monday, they will know to expect that from you.

This week, I encourage you to spend less time in your inbox. Disable push notifications to your phone; only pop into your email every hour or so. And when you do venture in and start scanning the inbox, ask yourself, “What would happen if I answer these an hour from now?” If the answer is nothing, then get back to your real work and leave the inbox for later.

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