Checking email three times a day has been a buzzword in the productivity space ever since Tim Ferriss book Four Hour Work Week came out. When I came across this idea of checking email only three times a day, I thought it’s a great technique and decided to give it a chance.
Like many others, I realized very quickly that it’s not working for me. It might be a great option for entrepreneurs, self employed people, bloggers working from beach, writers, musicians etc. but for average 9-5er, it doesn’t work as intended.
I still use this hack on days when I need to get lot of creative work done but it doesn’t work everyday. If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a chance when you have cognitively demanding tasks on your list.
Corporate office is a place full of distractions, regulations and expectations. It’s a place where people send you an email and then they come to your desk to ask you if you saw the email they just sent you. Like really?
So, as a cubicle warriors you and I need a system where we can check email more than three times but still prevent it from stealing most of our time.
Why checking email three times a day doesn’t work for average 9-5er?
Here are some most common reasons I came across:
- People manage their workday out of email
- FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is real
- Every email is considered important
- Fear of inbox piling up
- Desire to impress other people by replying quickly
- Always leaving email open on screen
- Victim of a habit
So, what can you do to prevent email from taking most your time while staying on top of it?
Following strategies can help you to limit the number of times you access email and most importantly they show you how to spend less time managing your email.
Know Your Focus Intensive Tasks
Remember, the primary goal of checking email less frequently is to make progress on cognitively demanding tasks that can’t be done via multitasking. That means, you need to know your high leverage tasks. Tasks that will help you accomplish your big and important goals.
If you don’t have any tasks on your plate that requires intense focus and mental energy, go ahead and live in your inbox all day because it doesn’t matter than. On the flip side, if you have tasks (trust we all have these) that requires mental power then you can’t be in an email inbox all day.
Prepare a list of tasks that can be only done well if done in an isolation.
Prevent Notifications from Controlling You
This single change will cut down the number of times you check your email by 50 percent. Don’t believe me? Start today and test it for a day.
Leave the notification on for email listed with high importance or emails from VIPs in your life such as boss or a family member. You can also setup your email client to send you a text message whenever you receive an email listed with a high importance.
You will be surprised to see how small the percentage of high importance emails really is. If you also have email setup on your phone, make sure to turn off notifications there as well.
Very Few Emails Are Urgent
Is replaying faster to emails part of your job description?
Is producing high quality work part of your job description? 100%
Still, most of us jump on an email and hit reply as soon as we see a notification popping up. Because we treat every email as urgent and we want to reply as fast as we can.
In reality, from all the emails you get only few of them are urgent. Until we understand this simple but powerful principle, we will keep wasting our time over emails.
Here’s something you can implement right away:
- All emails listed with high importance can have notifications on so that you can look at them right away.
- If email can be processed in or under two minutes, get over with it.
- If it requires more than two minutes, decide if it requires reply right now or it can wait.
- If it can wait, move it to a process later folder which you process once a day or to a task manager as a task. Goal here is to get email out of your inbox.
Stop Checking Emails and Start Processing Them
Sometimes, I email people and don’t hear back from them for a while. Next thing I hear from them “Sorry I missed your email”.
How on earth can you miss an email?
It’s not a phone call which only rings for a few seconds. It’s an email which sits in your inbox until you do something with it.
I discovered that most people leave email settings to default which means whenever you click on an email in your inbox, it gets marked as read. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s processed.
Most of the time we are just checking emails and not processing them. We treat email as a novel. We read it, leave it in inbox, come back, read it again and may be reply this time. This is highly inefficient and wastes lot of time.
We tend to look at various emails in our inbox before replying to any of them. As we are looking at emails, due to default settings they are automatically being marked as read. As a result, we miss emails because we can’t tell easily which emails we have processed and which we haven’t.
Only start reading emails when you are ready to process them. Don’t mark them read until you do something with it.
Be Wise and Listen
We all get emails where we are cc’d along with number of other people. As our brains are wired, we jump on it and hit reply as soon as possible. Suddenly, your inbox is flooded with emails from everyone on the list.
How often do we see our teams reaching on a conclusion via these type of emails?
At Least in my experience not very often. Ten emails on a same topic but still no outcome. Sounds familiar?
I have learned through experimentation that it’s best to wait until everyone else has replied. You would be surprised to know that most of the time you don’t even need to reply at all.
Like anyone else in a corporate environment, I get these type of emails all the time. By the time, I look at them, group has already reached a conclusion on a topic or they are suggesting to setup an in person meeting.
I still read through all of these emails to keep myself in the loop and only hit a reply if I have something valuable to add to the conversation.
Don’t hurry to reply to emails where you are cc’d along with other people.
Email Softwares Have Evolved So Should You
What do most of us do to organize emails?
We create these beautiful folders and then file related emails accordingly. Our rationale for doing this is that it becomes easier to find an email.
Maybe it was a best strategy 10 years ago but not anymore. Email softwares have evolved so much and search functionality is much more powerful than it was 10 years ago.
You can literally find any email even if you vividly remember the details. Different search filters are available now to make your life easier. Invest some time learning about different search filters to save lot of time in the long term.
Don’t waste time thinking about where you should file each email that comes your way. Trust email client’s search capabilities. Remember, your goal is to get out of email inbox as faster as you can and make real progress on your tasks.
Don’t waste time filing emails in folders. Instead move everything to the archive folder once it’s processed and trust search filters to find an email later on.
Build and Reuse
Do you have to write similar emails on a regular basis? Emails such as status reports, weekly updates, new team member’s onboarding etc.
Instead of writing these emails from scratch, build templates for them which you can reuse. Whenever you need to send that similar email again, pull your template and make minor adjustments to it and you are good to go.
Batch Your Outgoing Emails
If you want to receive less emails and spend less time processing inbox, then send less emails in the first place.
Whenever you are processing an email, decide if a person you are sending it to needs to get it right away or is it okay to delay it by couple of hours. If it’s fine to delay it, then schedule that email to go out later in the day.
This will save you from a potential email from another person and also results in one less email in other person’s inbox.
Automate Your Inbox
Even in the presence of highly efficient email softwares, most of us don’t have any kind of automation to our email inboxes. Nearly every email software allows you to define rules to automatically process your emails.
You don’t need to be a tech geek to build automation for your email inbox. All you need to do is setup few simple rules to start with. You can keep refining them afterwards.
Here are some examples of tasks you can automate with rules:
- To receive text message notification for high importance emails
- To automatically reading and deleting an email (from sources you don’t care about)
- To group emails together for later reading. Example, email newsletters
- To send recurring emails. Example: Reminders for your team
Connect Task Manager and Your Email
Nearly half of the emails we get are tasks where someone is asking us to do something by a specified time. Most of us leave email unread if it will take us longer to work on what was asked in an email so that we can return to it. This is a huge efficiency killer.
What can you do instead?
When you have a task manager, you can use it to hold emails as tasks that you need to process later.
Here’s how the process works:
- Go through your email inbox.
- Identify emails you are unable to process at the moment.
- Forward those emails to email account associated with your task manager to create a task.
- You can go to a task manager later on to decide how you want to process those emails (tasks).
This will help you to get out of email inbox faster and also help you to remember things you need to complete. To begin, you can start using free versions of well established platforms such as Asana and ToDoist.
Write Better Emails
I can’t stress enough the importance of writing better emails. Depending on how you write and structure your email, you can resolve an issue or come to a conclusion with other party in one email or end up going back and forth multiple times.
It’s not the grammar or spelling error I am referring to even though they are important as well. I am referring to what you actually put in an email. Let’s take an example.
Let’s say you want to ask your colleague if they want to go for lunch this week. Now, as most people do, you might write email like this.
Lunch this week?
Do you see the problem yet? There is no information whatsoever in this email. These types of emails bounce back and forth.
Here’s how this can be improved.
I am thinking of catching up over a lunch this week. I am not sure about your availability but here are some time sIots when I am available:
Time slot 1
Time slot 2
Please let me know if any of these times work for you.
Do you see the difference? This type of email will save you from going back and forth.
Take time upfront to write better emails which will save you time down the line.
Check email as often as you need to but make sure that you don’t live and operate out of your email inbox all day. Reading and replying to emails all day will not help you to create something valuable but will keep you very busy for sure.
Stop worrying about inbox zero or checking email three times a day and instead try a approach I showed you above. Here’s a summary of it
- Turn off all email notifications
- Understand that not every email is important
- Stop leaving email unread in inbox after you already read it
- If you are cc’d on an email with bunch of other people, wait for other people to reply first.
- Stop wasting time in managing email folders
- Create templates for similar emails
- Create rules for your email inbox
- Batch outgoing messages to receive less emails
- Use task manager to capture tasks that come through an email
- Write better emails
Most Common Questions
Q: I work as an administrative assistant where I need to be quick in fulfilling requests from others. Would this work for me?
A: This approach probably won’t work for you as your job is heavily dependent on dealing with emails. If you think you have tasks that require full focus then talk with your boss if you can be away from email for 1-2 hours a day.
Q: How should I respond when people ask me if I checked their email?
A: This annoys the hell out of me when someone sends an email and then come to my desk to ask me if I get their email.
Here’s what to say. “Not yet, because I am really trying to make a progress on this task which is due soon. I can get back to you later if that’s okay with you. It’s not urgent. Is it?”
This will work 95% of the time and they will say “Yea it’s ok” but some people actually make you open their email while they are standing there. You know who they are.
Q: If I turn off email notifications, wouldn’t I miss emails?
A: No. Firstly, understand that not all emails are important and you don’t need to know about them immediately. Leave the notifications on for emails listed with “High Importance” so that they always pop up on your screen.
Q: Should I target for inbox zero every day?
A: Inbox zero simply means emptying your inbox everyday. Some people strive for inbox zero but really who cares. If you take care of important emails and don’t spend all day in an email then it really doesn’t matter if you go inbox zero or not.
Given our access to emails at present , it’s really hard to maintain inbox zero. There will always be someone who will send you emails. Focus on processing inbox faster and stop worrying about inbox zero.
Q: How can I avoid the habit of constantly flipping back between task I am working on and an email?
A: This happens either due to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) or out of boredom. We constantly check email because we have a fear of missing something. We don’t want to miss any email but surprisingly many people still do it even after checking their email 100 times.
Secondly, when you get bored of a task you are working, you switch between an email and a task at a hand. I fall victim for this one as well.
Here are tips to deal with this problem:
- An easier solution to this problem is a Pomodoro technique. You set a timer for 25-30mins and only focus on task in front of you. Take a break and if you really need to. Take a look at your email during break if you want to.
- Not every email is important. If someone really wants anything from you right away, they should be sending an email with a high priority
- If you use windows operating system, change the settings for your email client that it’s only displayed in the system tray instead of a taskbar when minimized
What do you struggle most with when it comes to managing your emails? Let me know in comments.