Sometimes it feels like you can’t squeeze enough hours out of the day, especially when it comes to time spent in the office. Before you know it, it’s 5 p.m. and your to-do list hasn’t budged since morning. Luckily, there’s one easy way to find more time. Business Insider asked three productivity experts which everyday tasks are the biggest time wasters, and they all agreed on the same thing: email.
“Your inbox is everyone else’s to-do list for you, aligned to their goals and objectives, not necessarily your goals and objectives,” explains Carson Tate, author of Work Simply. While email has become a mainstay of the office workplace, it has a tendency to waste more time than it saves. So how can you use this tool in a way that’s more efficient? We tapped productivity expert Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock, to find out her best email tips for getting more done in less time throughout the workday, no matter how long your to-do list might be.
Wait Until Midmorning to Deal With Emails
According to Forbes, 66% of people check their email in the morning, and while it may be important to see urgent messages first thing, actually dealing with a full inbox in the morning isn’t the most productive way to start your day. It would be nice to forgo checking your emails in the morning, but this is hardly a practical approach. Vanderkam recommends doing a quick email scan in the morning but waiting until later in the day to really dive into any new tasks. “Glance at your emails as you’re about to get out the door—or on public transit or while parked in the garage at your office to make sure there’s nothing urgent. Then go tackle your top-priority project and start dealing with emails around mid-morning,” she says.
Make Email Time-Intentional
The number of times you check your email throughout the day doesn’t matter, according to Vanderkam. It’s about being intentional about how much time you spend tending to your inbox. “Checking once an hour is fine if you then commit to being on email for 20 minutes and then off for 40, rather than letting the email checks bleed into everything else,” she explains. Decide what kind of schedule makes the most sense for you, and try to be aware of how much time you spend on emails.
Be Conscious of When You Open Your Email Tab
“Email will expand to fill all available space,” says Vanderkam. “Keeping the tab open all day just invites random checking when you’d be better off focusing on a bigger project or taking a break.” Instead of leaving your email open and allowing notifications to distract your throughout the day, Vanderkam suggests only opening email when you need it and being mindful when doing so. “Feel free to open the tab frequently, but make sure you’re consciously choosing to open it.”
Forget About "Inbox Zero"
It’s easy to get caught up in the goal of obtaining a pristine, empty inbox, but according to Vanderkam, this dream is simply unattainable. “Time spent getting to inbox zero is likewise going to be wasted because people will just respond and then you won’t be at inbox zero anymore,” she says. Instead of focusing on the elusive “inbox zero”, just be mindful of time spent dealing with emails and requests.
Remember That Your Email Is Not Your Job
“Your inbox is not your to-do list,” says Vanderkam. “It’s a tool to do your job. It is not your job itself.” Despite what can feel like constant interruptions, requests, and new tasks, it’s important to remember that your job is so much more than this one communication device. “Use it only as it will advance the larger goals of your job,” she says.
Spend Less Time on Email
“The only way to spend less time on email is to choose to spend less time on email,” Vanderkam says. While there are many email tips that can help you use the tool more efficiently, the only way to take back more time during your day that’s usually lost to email is to check it less frequently and spend less time stuck in it. Unfortunately, “there is no magical hack that makes it take less time,” she says.
Use these tips to work on wasting less time on emails and more time doing your job and getting things done.
This post was originally published on November 8, 2017, and has since been updated.