If you’d like a jarring experience sometime, try reading the famous children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Alex and his family go pick up Dad at the office, causing all sorts of mischief, but what’s strangest to the modern reader is the illustration of Dad’s desk. He has a phone. Paper. Books. But, since Judith Viorst’s story was first published in 1972, no computer.
In 1972, you realize, office workers spent zero percent of their time on email. Forty years later, though, checking email has become synonymous with working, to the point where it seems to be taking over our working lives.
According to a July 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report on “the social economy,” the average knowledge worker now spends 28% of her work time managing email. If you work 50 hours per week, that’s 14 hours stuck in the inbox. McKinsey’s report suggested that workers could improve their email productivity by 25-30% through better use of social collaboration platforms, buying back 7-8.5% of their workweek. But even if your company isn’t investing in such platforms, here’s some low-hanging fruit for getting your head out of your inbox for a few of those 14 hours:
According to an analysis of 5 million emails from Baydin, an email management service, the average email user gets 147 messages per day and deletes 71 (48%). Deletion takes an average of 3.2 seconds. That doesn’t sound like much — about 4 minutes per day — but if you’re deleting 350 emails per workweek, that takes around 20 minutes per week, which adds up to more than 16 hours per year.
Or look at it this way: According to the American Time Use Survey, the average married, employed father who has children under age 6 spends just 2.4 minutes per day reading to them — which is less time than the average email user spends deleting emails. Play offense with your inbox by getting yourself off any lists you don’t read, and unsubscribing to commercial messages.
2. Don’t use folders.
One paper from Carnegie Mellon University found that 32% of email users agree with the statement, “I file my messages into folders as soon as I have read them.” Filing seems productive, but according to Alex Moore, CEO of Baydin, creating files associated with different projects or people is the least efficient way to find emails you might need again in the future — less efficient, in fact, then scrolling back through your inbox trying to remember roughly when the needed email came in. You can create one “archive” folder if you like to keep your inbox empty, but use the search function to find any information you need.
3. Send email at the right time.
According to Baydin’s analysis, the average email user writes 40 messages a day, but there’s no point writing these emails if they don’t get read. A message sent at 6 a.m. is more likely to be opened than one sent later in the day, Moore reports, though there’s also a small bump in reading after lunch. “If you need to ask someone to do something, you’re more likely to get what you want after their blood sugar is up,” he says.
4. Don’t check email so often.
Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, notes that there’s a reason email management has grown from zero hours per week to 28% of a person’s time in a generation. “Email is such a seductress in terms of distraction because it poses as valid work,” he says. You’re supposed to be working on a proposal, but you don’t feel like working on the proposal, so you check your inbox. “If you could get away with watching TV, you probably would instead of writing that proposal, but you probably can’t, so instead you check email,” he says.
A better solution? Batch process. Bregman checks three times per day, and finds this saves him many hours per week. “No one’s ever complained they haven’t gotten an email back fast enough,” he says. If three checks per day won’t work for you, try checking just once an hour instead, doing 40 minutes of focused work, then 20 minutes of inbox management. Chances are, you’ll get a lot more done.