Many of us resist the idea of limiting the total amount of time we spend on email. Instead, we allow the volume of email we receive, and the number of messages that require a response, to dictate how much of our day goes to the endless cycle of send and receive.
But letting email set the pace and structure of your working life makes sense only if answering email is the single most important part of your job. Unless you work on the frontlines of customer support, there’s probably a lot of other work that’s more important – even if it doesn’t feel as urgent as the message that just arrived. Committing to a minimum and maximum amount of time you’ll spend on email instead allows you to undertake focused work when you need to – and just as important, to take actual downtime.
The best way to keep email from crowding out the rest of your professional and personal priorities is to set an email budget: a specific amount of time you’ll spend on email, and a plan for how you’ll make the most of that time. Like a financial budget, an email budget helps you make the best use of a limited resource — in this case, your time.
Setting your email budget
Start by determining the total size of your email budget: the amount of time email warrants relative to your other priorities and workload. A good place to start is by looking at how much time you spend on email now, especially if you add up all those quick phone check-ins while you’re in line or on the commuter train, or grabbing a couple of minutes between meetings. If you reallocated a portion of that time to the incomplete project on your desk, or to the marketing campaign you putting off, or to restorative activities like sleep and exercise, would your professional effectiveness be enhanced or diminished? Use this self-assessment to determine the proportion of your workday that should go to email.
Allocating your email time
Once you’ve determined the size of your email budget, you should divide it up into a series of regular, brief check-ins (10 or 15 minutes maximum) throughout the day along with one or two extended periods of an hour or more per day. Keep your email program closed (and notifications on your phone off!) outside of your regular email hours and check-ins. Use a note-taking program or a task manager to keep a list of emails you need to send, rather than starting to write each email as it occurs to you, and leaving it open to finish at some later time.
Use the short check-ins to read or reply to time-sensitive items, while immediately deleting anything you don’t need to see at all. During your extended periods of email processing time, tackle messages that will take longer to process — to read or to form a thoughtful response — and try to clear out the day’s accumulation, archiving and sorting through what remains. Recognize that you may not get through every message within the hour you’ve set aside, and allocate your attention accordingly: don’t proceed chronologically through your inbox but rather attack what appear to be the most critical messages first. Also be wary of letting your “email time” go to actual project work: just because you were assigned a task over email doesn’t mean that you should be doing it in your allotted email hour.
Focus on the emails that matter
You will make the most of your limited email time if you spend it actually reading and responding to important messages rather than on the time-consuming task of plowing through a long list of incoming emails that may or may not warrant your attention. That means automating your message triage process in a way that reflects conscious and explicit choices about what kinds of emails you will and won’t read, and when.
Email management tools like Sanebox and Other Inbox offer a quick way to limit the amount of inbound messages you need to scan. You’ll have the greatest control over what hits your inbox if you set up your own set of mail rules or filters, however. This functionality is available in most popular email programs such as Outlook, Gmail, and others; you can find a step-by-step guide to using rules and filters in my latest ebook, Work Smarter: Rule Your Email.
A filter-based triage system sends less-important messages straight to folders, giving the inbox a miss entirely. You can then check those folders as often as you need to — daily for relatively important types of messages, or never for messages you only want to keep on hand for later reference. For example, you might direct all calendar invitations into a scheduling folder that you review at the end of each day, and industry newsletters into a folder that you review once a week. What remains in your primary inbox are just those messages that meet your standard for must-read-now email, a standard you should keep raising until the number of messages in your inbox fits within the email budget you’ve set.
Setting an email budget doesn’t mean abandoning your commitment to email responsiveness. You’re just focusing on what types of email will get immediate attentions, and identifying some that won’t.
Nonetheless, the very idea of an email budget tends to provoke a range of anxieties. What if I get a message from my boss after after I’ve used up a day’s email time? What if I work in an organization where same-day (same-hour?) turnaround is a universal expectation? What if — worst of all — I miss an important message?
The best way to mitigate these risks is with transparency. Make your plan explicit with colleagues and clients so they know when you’ll respond, and how to reach you in between times. For example, let colleagues know that you always look at your email first thing, or at lunch time, or that you have two hours booked into your schedule every afternoon so that you can focus on email in a meaningful way; that lets them know that they need to email you that memo by 2 pm if they want you to review it.
Even if you communicate your system clearly, living within an email budget is not going to win you any awards for being your company’s fastest or most diligent correspondent. But is that what you want to be known for? Better to set limits that let you be okay at email – and brilliant at the creative, intellectual and leadership work that email would otherwise crowd out.
Alexandra Samuel is Vice-President of Social Media at Vision Critical, a market research technology provider. She is the author of Work Smarter, Rule Your Email (Harvard Business Review Press, February 2014). Follow her on Twitter at @awsamuel.