E-mail: The great time waster

Yesterday, Lauren Halagarda discussed a number of tips for clearing clutter from your inbox. Today, contributor Sue Brenner explores how to keep e-mail from cluttering up your time.

Maybe it’s anxiety about e-mail that causes this form of communication to create so much stress? The sheer volume of messages piling in our inboxes begs us to sort through them first thing every morning to feel like we’ve made some progress. What starts as an innocent peek into Outlook can end up devouring an hour, a morning, and, in some cases, a whole day.

MSO.net, a UK and Australia-based web agency, reports:

“As the quantity of e-mails in workers’ inboxes increases steadily, productivity suffers as people spend less time doing the work for which they were employed and dedicate too much time dealing with the unwelcome e-mails. This increases anxiety since office hours may increase and thus the work/home life equilibrium is affected – ultimately more stress is heaped on the individual.”

How about setting periods of time when you’ll sift through e-mails and then let them gather again for later? For some, especially in the high-tech industry, this might seem impossible. But, getting a handle on e-mail time has its benefits. MSO’s study revealed that people underestimate how often they check e-mail, which potentially amounts to more wasted time.

“Of those surveyed, 34 per cent said that they thought they checked their inbox every 15 minutes. However, monitoring software reported a different story when fitted to those users’ PCs. In reality, many were viewing e-mails up to 40 times an hour. The burden to respond quickly to e-mails appears to be partly to blame and when combined with the volume of e-mails being received, stress is the outcome for 33 per cent.”

It’s true that wanting to reply quickly to e-mails is part of the culprit. However, when we’re compulsively clicking on our inboxes 40 times an hour (unless you’re in a job that warrants that amount of e-mail checking such as customer service or tech support), productivity declines.

E-mail can be used to keep busy, deceiving us into thinking we’re getting important work done, when half of the stuff we open is a YouTube forward. There’s some funny footage out there, but it seductively steals time.

And, when you’re already stressed–a looming deadline, an important interview–e-mail is as easy a distraction as turning on the TV at night.

Unless I’m meeting with a client or have an early appointment, I check e-mail in the morning. As a small business owner, I like to be responsive.

Keeping it under control

When I start working for the day, I first check my calendar. Then, I write down on paper my top three priorities for the day. (I don’t want my e-mails influencing these priorities just yet.) The act of putting pen to paper helps me concentrate and hone in on what’s important for my day.

If I have a morning meeting, then I’ll head out the door. If my schedule is clear, it’s then that I will quickly dip into e-mail. If my e-mail unveils something urgent, I might replace one of my priorities on my top three list. Then, I draw a line under the top three and put other to dos there, in case I have extra time.

Throughout the rest of my day, I only check e-mail once every few hours. I get more done that way and my focus stays sharper. Every once in a while, there are a few important e-mails that sneak past me, but not many. If an emergency arrises, people will find me if they need me.

What helps you stay on top of e-mail enough without too much time loss? What strategies do you use to focus, block distractions and make the most of your time?

25 Comments for “E-mail: The great time waster”

  1. posted by Deb on

    As a teacher, I get a school e-mail account. The computer is on a counter away from my workspace (not my choice) When I sit down to open it, I bring over the attendence book, the planner, my calendar and the gradebook. If a parent has a question,I can quickly reference the information. If I get a notice for a meeting, I can write it down right then.

    The personal e-mail accounts also have professional business on them through non-district organizations. I access them only if I have time because they are never urgent. Otherwise I surf them and their embedded links at my leisure.

  2. posted by Miguel de Luis on

    My advice is the uber-Panze-machinegun-no-remorse-email-killer tactic.

    Deal with email fast, delete without a second thought, and assign to it a limited time period.

    Unless your work is precisely dealing with email, as in customer care, of course.

  3. posted by Gumnos on

    My best two tips for handling the deluge of email (usually 300-800 messages/day):

    1) mailinator.com Use it for throw-away email addresses, long enough to get any requisite confirmation emails, and the sites don’t get your real email address. Perfect for “create an account before you can use this site” sites like photo sites (such as Kodak, snapfish.com, or pharmacy photo-processing sites).

    2) if you have your own domain name, you can usually set up a “catch-all” account. That way, you can give out addresses of the form @mydomain.com which allows your mail-filters to handle each incoming address cleanly. Thus, for Unclutterer, I use [email protected] and for my NYT news account, I might use [email protected] Any email that comes to this address can be readily filtered into a germane folder, and if the site starts abusing it (i.e. I start getting spam at that address), I can either blacklist the address altogether, or I can restrict it that mail coming to [email protected] can only come from nytimes.com and all other email to this address gets blackholed so I never see it.

    Between these two tips, the mail-stream that I actually pay attention to is a mere 100-200 msgs/day.

    Lastly, if you use Outlook, the control+shift+V key-chord makes it easy to file incoming messages — just start typing the name of the folder you want to file it in (you may have to hit “/” to get it to expand all your folders first) and then hit [enter] when the right folder is highlighted. It’s revolutionized how quickly I can file email at work, and I really miss this functionality in Thunderbird.

  4. posted by Harmony on

    I get so much email at work I’ve taken to simply checking my inbox once when I get in each morning, answering anything insanely urgent, then shutting down my email client (not minimising, exiting!), putting my headphones on, and getting my urgent work for the day done.

    Otherwise I could seriously spend ALL day just dealing with emails, it’s ridiculous.

  5. posted by Emma on

    Good question. I don’t have a way to handle emails. Luckily I don’t get too many, but I have outlook open all day for work emails and gmail notifier for personal emails. As soon as a mail comes in I know about it – and unless I’m mega busy I tend to read it… This is something I need to deal with!

  6. posted by Gillian on

    I think that some people hope an e-mail will contain something to make them feel needed or a similar solution to loneliness. Even in a busy office there are lonely people.

  7. posted by Shanel Yang on

    In one job, I used to get 50 – 100 emails a day. And, here’s the crazy part: Almost every one of them were considered by the sender to be “urgent.” You can imagine with that many emails and that many egos, deleted any of them was not an option. So, I created as many folders and subfolders as I needed to at least store them in the order that I received them in case anyone actually needed me to recall the contents of any of them. As soon as I received one of them (I had to do it immediately b/c it was marked “urgent.”), I scanned them to be sure there wasn’t anything I needed to do about it in the near future. If there was, I printed the email, wrote notes on it about what I needed to do, and stuck it into my inbox for later if it could wait or did it immediately if it couldn’t.

    Yes, that interrupted my day and took a long time in the mornings and after lunch to catch up. But, for that job, it was critical. I responded immediately to any emails from friends immediately and deleted all other non-work related group emails. Worked for me! ; )

  8. posted by Miss Julie on

    I’m a lawyer at a large corporation, and I check my email three times a day: once in the morning, to see if there are any meeting requests or emails from people or about projects important enough to require an immediate response; at 11 am, when I process all the email (sorting, responding, adding tasks to my task list); and once at 4 pm, when I process again. This way I respond in a timely fashion, but I’m not caught in the trap of “instant response” where people think they can go back and forth with me via email rather than pick up the phone.

  9. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    I’ve reduced my e-mail checking to once an hour, but you guys inspire me to reduce that even further. Plus, for about half of the e-mails that I receive, I could probably walk over and talk to the recepient, as many of my e-mails come from within the office. When you’re in a cube farm with little opportunity for movement, every little bit helps!

  10. posted by Brooklynchick on

    I turned off the notification sound, fade-up, and little envelope provided by Outlook. This way, I don’t get interrupted every time an e-mail comes through. I may check more than three times a day, but a lot less than three-times per hour, my previous average!

  11. posted by [email protected] Awareness * Connection on

    Thanks for sharing your routine. This is certainly something that affects most of us. And it is easy to sit and check email like a rat hitting the bar in his cage for the experimenter’s sugar water. Discipline is the name of the game here. You can’t let the email set the pace.

  12. posted by Jacque on

    I’d like to know how people who use Outlook turn off mail, but receive meeting alerts — I confess to being slightly dependent on them. What approaches have people taken for this problem?


  13. posted by jason on

    Gumnos – check out the nostalgy plugin for Thunderbird. It provides almost exactly the Ctrl-Shift-V functionality from Outlook.

  14. posted by Gumnos on


    The Nostalgy plugin is great…it’s even configurable so my muscle-memory can keep the same shortcuts. Thanks!


  15. posted by Bean Jones on

    I use the chunking system too. I only check my mail at certain times of the day and I give myself a deadline. This way I focus only on the really important email.

    I also use email filters/folders. Entourage pre-sorts my mail into folders so I tend to put off reading personal email til the end of the day and read the more urgent work stuff first thing.

  16. posted by sylrayj on

    I enjoy a lot of my emails. My ISP filters out a lot of spam, and I have folders – quick sort (only takes a moment to look at them, some are kept for future entertainment), ten minutes (most of my recipe and parenting site emails, they take longer to review), individual folders for my Daily Lit emails, etc.

    When it gets too grey, and I run out of any energy for anything, my ten minutes folder tends to load up. I know a few of the emails can be simply deleted because they hold links that are erased every week. Otherwise, I try to look over ‘just one more’ when I’m catching up again. Yes, it takes a while, but the recipes are mostly relevant anyway and I don’t run out of energy I can’t spare that way.

  17. posted by Dan from Priority Management on

    It’s great to see so many people that have realised email is creating a challenge in their day and have taken action!

    Jacque; you asked how to turn off email notifications but not miss meeting reminders. Assuming you are using MS Outlook, you can go to Tools, Options, Email Options, Advanced Email Options. Turn off the four tick boxes under “when new mail arrives…” Don’t worry; this will only affect email popups, not meeting reminders (though it’s also a good idea to use reminders sparely; don’t use your calendar as a “catch-all” for work to do, that’s what tasks are for.)

    Many people are stuck in a vicious circle; they check email constantly so people people expect the to constantly check, so they constantly check…

    Your behaviour drives what people expect, so start setting the expectation that you will look at mail only at set times during the day.

    The key to taking control of your inbox lies in making a decision – we teach our students a process for deciding what needs to happen with each message and show how to put it in an appropriate place to manage based on its PRIOIRTY rather than the urgency perceived by the sender.

    *(Did you know you can make an email into a task or appointment simply by dragging???)*

    I hope this helps; I don’t want to disrespect this site’s owners by openly advertising so I won’t post our web address. Good luck everyone!

  18. posted by Loren on

    I’ve learned to prevent emails eating up my time by choosing not to use it as a task list! I use to use flags to try to remind myself of follow up priority, and leave emails in there that I needed to act on. Bad idea! Inevitably would forget what exactly the email was about, and i would have to reopen over and over. Now, I only read emails with subject lines that suggest i should, put tasks into Remember the Milk (www.rememberthemilk.com Awesome!), and delete it all! I totally agree with what a couple of people have said: if someone really needs me, they’ll call me!

  19. posted by Gloria on

    I hope I can actually get a chance to try these.

  20. posted by chex mix recipe on

    I heard about this, but your post is the best explanation of it. Most other blogs I have read don’t know what they are talking about. However, I must say that your blog is very informative…I am subscribing to your RSS feed right now! Thanks!

  21. posted by Dickies on

    It’s always good to find like-minded people. Thanx and I’m going to add you to my RSS feed.

  22. posted by Brandy on

    ‘scuse me Gumnos – email ninja! ‘control+shift+V key-chord’ I am so trying that! Is there a Gmail equivalent?

    Also Erin – I like the top 3 things Idea – I am going to try that too.

    For me, I need to keep my inbox(es) at zero or I miss stuff. I just cleaned out Gmail – it’s been out of control since i went on vacation. But processing them is best done intermittently. I find there are days when I need to shut Gmail and Outlook down and just focus on my work.

  23. posted by Anita on

    I think email management is a big topic in any office. Where I work, I don’t have the option of only checking my email every couple of hours, unfortunately. At times I get urgent requests that need to be dealt with within the hour, while other times a coworker would send me a message and show up in my office two minutes later looking for an answer. I also don’t have the option of deleting everything I no longer need, since emails are part of corporate memory around these parts.

    My system is to deal with messages as soon as they come in. Anything irrelevant gets deleted right away; things I don’t want to delete but that don’t need follow-up get filed; things that need follow-up stay in my inbox until I’ve dealt with them, then get filed. At the end of the day I also do an inbox purge, and I try to also do a general mailbox cleanup every month. It’s worked for me, and most days I manage to keep my inbox under 20 messages (not always easy…)

  24. posted by This Week’s Articles of Interest « GS Business Resources on

    […] this is one I really need to read often – Email the Great Time Waster. My inbox is totally out of control, and I spend far too much time checking it just in case […]

  25. posted by Timothy P on

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment.

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