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What is it about email? I’ve seen studies that said office workers check their email anywhere from 5 times per day, all the way up to 40 times per hour! Everyone gets so much email, it’s difficult to stay on top of it. It’s the reason most people have hundreds or thousands of messages in their inbox, even many that are important and/or require some type of action.

Research suggests that the concept of the “new” and the “novel” creates a “dopamine squirt” that reinforces the behavior. But it’s not only about how often we check it. I think there is a certain comfort in the stability of it, the understanding, the sense of accomplishment, no matter how brief or false. But there is something that feels “easy” about knowing that a big part of your day must be devoted to emails. It’s like having a big long list that we can check something off of every few minutes. It’s not hard, it often doesn’t require a lot of brain power…in fact it could even be called “busy work.” There is an attraction to that, which reinforces the already-present lure of the dopamine squirt.

My recommendation for managing email is to review as often as you feel is necessary, process to zero at least a couple of times per week, and do what needs doing at the appropriate time. So let me explain each of these in a bit more detail…

Personally, I can let days go by where I just skim my messages on my phone, address some that need no response or just a quick reply, and potentially address others by making a phone call instead of emailing back. This is what I call reviewing. I only allow myself to do it on my phone, because using my computer introduces too much temptation to get drawn into email and then nothing else gets done. During this time, I don’t take the time to really process any or most of them. I only address email on my computer when I’m prepared and ready to process.

But after a few days I know that I’ve let it go long enough…there are items that need more attention, that perhaps didn’t start out as urgent, but I know I’d be shirking my responsibilities and commitments if I didn’t address them soon.

Which means that at least one day per week, I know I have to set aside a stretch of hours where all I have to do is process my inbox. Merlin Mann, of 43 and Inbox Zero, describes process as “more than checking, less than responding.” David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, describes process as “deciding what actions to take on stuff.” Process to me means dealing with every single message, and either deleting it or otherwise moving it out of my inbox. When I’m done, my inbox will be empty, but this can only be accomplished if I halt the messages from downloading. I have my client set so that the messages only come in when I press the Send/Receive button. So on these days, I know that all I have to do is get myself a cup of coffee, press that Send/Receive button (because I might as well deal witheverything, right?) and just move on down the list, one after the other, reviewing, answering, deleting, filing as necessary,if it won’t take more than a few minutes, and I have all the information I need to dispatch it. When I’m done, my inbox is empty, and I know I’m current on my communications (at least for the moment, because I know if I press that send receive button, more messages will come). But I don’t press that button, and so for the moment, the processing is complete, and my inbox is at zero (great feeling!)

However, this doesn’t mean I’ve taken action on all of them. Some things I will have to save to do at a later date, maybe because I need more information, or because it will take many minutes or hours to complete, or because I need someone else’s help. In this case, whatever action is required gets moved to my to-do list, so that I can do it when I have the answers, time, and resources available to me.

Review, Process, Do: this is the methodology I recommend for dealing with the constant barrage of email most people are subjected to on a daily basis, and it’s an important piece of my Empowered Productivity System. There is no question that it takes time and if email is part of your world, you should plan for that time. I disagree with David Allen on many things, but on this we agree: managing your email inbox is part of your work.

Usually people can’t predict the relief they get from an empty inbox until they have one. I suggest you try it. Thanks for reading!

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