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Master and Servant: turning the tables on email’s grip on your time

With the current ease of access, checking your email is more of a compulsion than a task. But cutting down on the number of times you visit your inbox may save you time at the end of the day.

Technology seems to work in a curious way: just when you’re getting used to the way it improves your life, new problems seem to arise from it. Take the automobile, for example. It enables you to travel faster and in comfort from A to B, but how comfortable do you feel when you’re pushing a couple of inches per minute on a traffic jam – or circling the block trying to find a place to park? Public transportation isn’t always practical, so it takes some planning and forward thinking to make the best use out of your mechanical horse technology.

Email seems similarly afflicted. With handheld platforms making it easier to check email, it seems like there’s no real justification for not checking it at every idle moment. And even if you're sticking to merely checking it at the workplace, you’ll end up distracted by that cacophony of messages – and what was meant to be a mere check-in becomes itself a proper task, your previous task forgotten and out of focus.

George Kao, the productivity expert behind the “inbox zero” concept, mentions the batching principle: “the less often you switch activities, the more flow and efficiency you tend to experience” (George Kao, “A System for Email Productivity”). If we’re allowed to get some more mileage out of our car analogy, it’s as if we’re taking to the road for every little thing we need to do on the street. We’ll end up saving a lot of time if we schedule that drive for later, grouping every stop in one trip.

The solution presents itself as one of discipline, then. Restricting your email checks to a few per day seems a natural tactic, but one that people seldom seem to employ. Tim Ferris (of “Four-hour Workweek” fame) has an automatic reply that informs his correspondents of his (single!) daily appointed time to reply to all emails. That does seem excessive, so here’s our more conservative proposal for an email schedule.

  1. Establish precise daily appointments for replying

    We recommend, for starters, a morning check-in for all the things you may have missed since the day before, as well as composition of your more time-sensitive missives. An early afternoon check-in for all the things you can still address during the day, and then a final check-in at the end of the day, to make sure nothing passed you by.

  2. Have a few interstitial check-ins for tagging

    It seems like we’re breaking our own rules already, right? Well, not so much. You can allow yourself to check in every now and then to make sure nothing urgent came up – but mostly you should be checking in merely to tag emails “to be answered”. You won’t forget about them, and knowing they’ll be processed in time will ease your conscience.

  3. Make sure your correspondents know about your system

    Although not necessarily mandatory, it’s good etiquette to make sure people know how soon they can expect a reply from you. This can be done informally, but the best method is possibly to add something to your signature – such as “Email checked three times a day”.

But the most important tip of all: close your email tab or email client. Otherwise, that visual reminder will always be an itch waiting to be scratched. With these few steps in place, you’re guaranteed to make a more efficient use of your email time, and your attention will suffer less from distractions.