3 Steps to Escaping Email Hell

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Editor’s note: This post was written by productivity expert Jared Goralnick, interviewed in the video below. He blogs about online productivity and founded a company that makes an email-management app you can try for free.

Overwhelmed by your inbox? You’re not alone.

While social networks and company intranets are supposed to be better than email, they’ve only added to the volume of messages we receive every day. From social network notifications to company mailing lists to the real work we’re supposed to do, many of us now receive hundreds of emails per day.

The problem isn’t just the volume. It’s the relentless frequency.

Emails constantly interrupt us. Back in the days of snail mail, we’d find a stack of mail in our mailboxes once each day, which we could organize and prioritize. These days, emails arrive unpredictably, without any indication of priority. According to Basex Research, emails can eat up to half a worker’s day, because it can take five minutes to refocus on the task at hand after a 30-second interruption.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson interviewed me for some quick tips on how to spend less time in your inbox. Check it out, then read on for more details…

Let’s review some of those simple steps toward email sanity…

1. Ignorance is bliss

Turn off the pop-up window, the sound, or the vibration that each new email makes on your smartphone or computer screen. Once that notification is turned off, it’ll be much easier to focus. Don’t worry, you won’t forget to check your email. And the world will go on – you don’t need to know about every single message the second it arrives.

2. Cut down to the bone

Clear those messages out of your inbox. Just like when you have a clear desk or an orderly room, an inbox with just a handful of messages will help you to feel in control. You’ll be amazed by the sheer weight that’ll be lifted.

3. Email isn’t a task list

Don’t use your inbox as a task list. Picture a pile of paper spread across your desk in the order of when things were placed there. Every once in a while, someone drops an item on the top – while you’re working on something in the middle. That’s what your email inbox looks like, and it’s a terrible way to organize your priorities. Email prioritizes by time, while a proper task list is prioritized by you.

So how do you keep a proper task list? Wherever you choose to keep your to-do list, provide enough detail on each task to make it easy to complete it later. When you start a task, if there’s a bunch of information you have to find first, you’re more likely to procrastinate. You want to help yourself today by giving a clear “next step” as the task description.

For instance, this is bad: “Call Paul to discuss proposal.” This is better: “Call Paul Singh to discuss Results Junkies eBook (attached).”

For any given day, try to keep your task list very small – perhaps one or two major items and a few phone calls or errands. You’ll feel much better making it through a small task list than checking two items off a giant one. You’re also more likely to pay attention to your list if it’s a manageable size.

If possible, maintain a list that’s date-specific, so that you don’t need to pay attention to a particular task until its start date arrives (Outlook 2007-2010’s calendar Tasks are excellent for this, as is www.goodtodo.com).

Also try to link to the related email. Gmail has a handy “Add to Tasks” option in the “More” menu that allows you to create a task that’s linked to an email. You can then re-title the task so it’s clear what your action item is. If you use Gmail but don’t use its Task list, you can always copy and paste the URL for the email into the task itself. Outlook also lets you link to the source email.

The bottom line

Just because technology allows us to theoretically do multiple things at once doesn’t mean we can. From NPR’s Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again

“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”

Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

If you allow your email to distract you, you’re going to lose focus. It’s going to take longer to do the work that very likely has a higher priority than your latest email. The way to keep your email from distracting you is to manage it rather than have it manage you. The way to do that is to turn off notifications and only check your email at regular intervals you establish. When you do check it, clear your inbox, either by deleting emails, answering them, or using them as an action item by adding them to your task list.

Think of your inbox like it’s a physical mailbox at the street in front of your house. You wouldn’t run to the curb every time a bell rings indicating a new arrival. You wouldn’t take some envelopes out while leaving others in. And you wouldn’t establish your daily priorities by the order letters arrived.

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