You: Let me check my email one last time.
That pesky inner voice: Again?
Email is hijacking your days, and it’s being sneaky about it. But who says you can’t regain control over your time? All you need to do is figure out how much time you devote to email right now and then find ways to cut it short.
Thanks to apps like Mailstrom, the much coveted inbox zero is no longer difficult to achieve. I reached it a long time ago. That didn’t stop me from staring at my empty inbox all day, waiting expectantly for my next email, in readiness to zap it right away and keep my inbox clean. It seems anal-retentive, but that kind of email obsession is quite common for many of us. As much as we might try to deny it, addiction is the word that fits what we have.
Like other addictions, this one can also be tackled, if you understand what triggers it and do something to counter it.
Time Saved = Time Earned
You know when something is bad for you. But until you quantify the negative effects, you’ll find it difficult to make the shift to better habits.
In the case of email, if you check it in between tasks, it begins to feel like a non-task. The time you spend this way is no more than a few minutes periodically, which is what makes it easy to ignore its cumulative effect. Email does seem to be a necessary evil in these times, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it run your life or that you can’t find a way to get the best out of it.
Unless you put that lost time into perspective, your email checking routine will continue to feel harmless in the larger scheme of things. Aren’t there any apps for logging email time? I thought you’d never ask. Of course there are.
There are various apps designed to help you track the time you spend on individual activities online. Use them to keep tabs on your email habits and see the results in hard numbers. They will tell you where you’re doing well and where you’re messing up.
Here are some apps that can help you understand how your day is whooshing by when you’re all wrapped up in a conversation with your inbox.
If too much back and forth emailing is eating into your team’s work hours, an automated time-tracking tool like Crisply may be just what your team needs. Track the exact amount of time your team members are forced to spend going through their inbox, and use that data to figure out a better workflow that does not involve so much of email. Better yet, switch to a team collaboration service like Slack, as we at MakeUseOf have.
Crisply is free for personal use. The Team and Enterprise flavors are priced.
If you’re a fan of the Pomodoro technique, you can make it track your email habits by timing each of your email-checking sessions and adding up their durations. There are many excellent Pomodoro apps floating on the Web. We recommend Tomato.es, a browser-based Pomodoro timer that simplifies time management. It does not require registration, but if you link it to your Twitter account, you get detailed stats on your Pomodoro sessions. Analyze those stats to see how much time you’re devoting to reading and responding to emails.
Windows. Mac. Linux. Android. iOS. You can install the popular time-tracking app Toggl on all of these platforms or access it from its online interface. Sign up to start measuring your email usage.
RescueTime (our review) is another amazing cross-platform tool for time-tracking. It gives you access to detailed reports on your computer habits. Read them to figure out if you’re being as productive as you think you are. What does your email usage look like? Not as minimal as you’d like it to be? Set a goal to reduce it and work on your email habits using the simple tips presented in the next section.
Once you have understood how much time you spend on email everyday and by how much it exceeds what you consider necessary, you can take effective measures to make the transition to a smarter email workflow. Here are some steps to help you get started.
Close That Inbox In 5, 4, 3…
If you keep your inbox open all day, you cannot resist jumping to it in between tasks. Apply the concept of chunking to your email-related tasks and tackle them at specific times. Just once a day is great if you can pull it off, twice is reasonable, thrice might be a tad too much. Fix a time limit on your inbox-checking sessions based on the average amount of email you have to deal with on a daily basis. Before diving into that inbox, set an alarm to remind you when your time’s up, and obey it without exception.
Stay away from your inbox for a couple of hours after you wake up and a couple more before you go to bed. Save your email activities for times like that post-lunch afternoon slump, when you have put a chunk of your work for the day behind you and when you don’t feel alert enough to focus on real work.
Enable Desktop Notifications? No, Thank You.
Live notifications disrupt your flow, force unplanned breaks, and make you reluctant to return to work. Blame it on your curiosity to learn what your inbox has in store for you. Say no to those instant notifications. Instead of allowing yourself to be at the mercy of your inbox, you decide when you want to receive the information it holds.
Go Back To The Desktop
Email marketers are tweaking their strategies to optimize their emails for mobile gadgets, because the number of people swapping desktops for mobile devices to read email is increasing everyday.
If you’re a part of that statistic and are looking to beat email addiction, uninstall the mail app from your smart device and switch back to your desktop for checking email. This can introduce a level of effort that is non-existent when you’re dealing with a gadget like your smartphone, and that just might have a positive effect on your email habits. It seems to have worked well for Jake Knapp, who started a distraction-free iPhone experiment a year ago.
Program Your Brain
In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams calls the human mind a moist robot that one can program. You might want to program yours to keep your email checking to a minimum. Do that by swapping your email addiction for another one, albeit one that will have a positive effect on your life. I’m talking about HabitRPG. See how HabitRPG makes improving yourself addictive, and use it to gamify your email habits and steer them in a healthy direction.
Ready To Cut The Cord?
With its accessible-to-all approach, email has played a major role in eliminating geographical barriers, but it has also turned into a flourishing distraction that keeps you from more important things in your life. The good news is that if you manage to cut the email cord, you recover more time from your day, and can even make time for personal projects.
How do you track your inbox habits? Are they changing for the better?