Email is a process, not a task.
5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
How big is the office email problem?
Statistics vary, depending on the studies you look at and which specific groups of workers the studies focus on. However, according to one study from the McKinsey Global Institute, you’ll spend on average over one-fourth of your time at the office dealing with email. That amounts to roughly 13 hours a week, or about 650 hours each year.
Moreover, that same study shows that every time you read or send an email, it’ll take you 90 seconds to return to whatever you were doing before the email interrupted your workflow.
In 2007, Merlin Mann suggested “inbox zero” as a better way to manage the distractions of email. With stringent processing rules, this idea promises that if you apply them for every single email in your inbox, at the end of the workday you’ll have an empty inbox—hence, Inbox Zero.
While this approach still has die-hard fans, it’s probably not really ideal for busy entrepreneurs. One commenter, behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely, calls it “structured procrastination.” They believe Inbox Zero is a vanity metric. it might make you feel good, but in the end, it means nothing. That kind of attention to detail may be unrealistic for busy entrepreneurs too.
So if Inbox Zero isn’t the best approach to the email problem, what is? A more mindful and less obsessive approach to email requires two mindset shifts, together with a few practical management tips.
Mindset shift #1: There is no email problem. It’s just a process.
Stop thinking of email as something you can “take care of.” It’s not a task, but rather a never-ending process.
The appeal of inbox zero is partially visual. People who find they cannot possibly focus in a cluttered room, for example, will be especially drawn to this method because it creates a visually appealing “empty box.” However, that empty box is actually a meaningless construct that doesn’t really hold any intrinsic meaning.
Instead, try shifting your mental paradigm for email from a collection of individual “things” to a practice or a process. Think about other never-ending tasks, such as washing dishes. You know that this task is something that will never be “done” forever. It will continually repeat in a kind of perpetual loop.
The same is true of email. When you make that mental shift, an overflowing inbox stops feeling like a moral failing on your part. And, it becomes more like what it is: a signal of a process that keeps going.
Mindset shift #2: Emails are choices for you to make, not obligations to perform.
Another mindset shift that can help you manage email more effectively is to stop perceiving individual messages as obligations. Nothing says you have to respond with several paragraphs right this second to every single email you receive. You get to choose what’s important and what can wait (something the Inbox Zero system also accepts as true).
Regain control over your inbox by regaining your sense of agency. You’re in control here. When you cease feeling obligated by each message, you no longer feel compelled to read and process each and every email, as soon as it arrives in your inbox.
Adopt practical and realistic email management strategies.
The idea of a blank inbox doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on top of your email, and it’s probably not realistic in the hectic workday of an entrepreneur. However, some of the Inbox Zero component strategies might be useful to you. Alternatively, other strategies may make more sense to the way you naturally work.
Try out the following strategies if they feel manageable to you. Keep what works and discard the rest.
Schedule specific times during the day to process email: Turn off all email notifications. Then discipline yourself to process email only at certain times of the day. For example, first thing in the morning, shortly after lunch, and thirty minutes before you plan to stop work for the day.
Handle each email once: This strategy makes sense if you frequently find yourself looking for and re-opening older emails over and over again. Figure out what needs to happen, then do that thing immediately.
Use labels and rules judiciously: Automating email processing sounds wonderful, but it’s important to get this right. If you don’t set up your rules properly, you can wind up missing important messages. Don’t allow things to automatically skip your inbox, and don’t set up too many rules. Complex systems can become unstable and difficult to manage.
Rely on search, not filing: Nested filing structures quickly grow out of control. Instead, create only a few folders (perhaps “To Do,” “Delegate,” “Clients,” and “Interoffice”), and use search to locate older emails.
Improve your own email messages: Train your contacts to write better emails by improving your own. Keep them short and succinct — two or three points max. Use formatting (bold and italics, e.g.) to improve readability.