Inbound Email Mastery: Five Powerful Practices

Email11,680. That’s the number Barry Gill reported in the June 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review. The average worker receives 11,680 pieces of email per year.

That’s 234 pieces of email in a work week, 47 in a work day. One every 10 minutes.

I don’t need to tell you that email overload is killing workplace productivity. It’s the technological innovation we love to hate. The most successful executives, however, have mastered email overload by applying these five powerful practices to its inbound flow:

PRACTICE 1: Have set times in the day to check inbound email

The first step in mastering the flow of inbound email is not letting it drive the agenda of your day. The way we’ve allowed email to interrupt our lives is like revving up the engine of a sports car, racing down the road at top speed, and then bringing that car to a screeching stop after traveling one city block.

And doing this constantly. All day, every day.

The most successful executives don’t live this way. They set specific times in their day where they process email and stick to those times religiously. What this takes is scheduling 10-15 minutes a couple of times in the morning and 10-15 minutes a couple of times in the afternoon to attend to inbound email.

Because you’re writing crisp, clear and concise correspondence and not letting email replace actual conversation, this is really all the time you need.

MORE: Executive Email Effectiveness: Six Essential Steps

What’s surprising about this discipline is that it will actually increase your email effectiveness not decrease it. Instead of giving half your brain to inbound email, during your set times you’ll be able to give it your undivided attention, and, as a result, execute better on it.

PRACTICE 2: Turn off inbound email alerts and pop-ups

The second practice in mastering inbound email is turning off all the notifications you receive when an email arrives in your inbox. What these alerts do is destroy your focus as a leader and keep you in a constant state of emergency.

The best option for this is actually shutting down your email application and opening it only during the specific times in your day when you check your email. But some people find this step too severe. So at the very least turn off the all the alarms that sound, all the bells and whistles that go off, and all the pop-ups that appear when you get an email.

Why?

A joint study by Microsoft and the University of Illinois found that it takes, on average, 16 minutes, 33 seconds for a worker interrupted by an email to get back to what he or she was doing. If you even cut that time in half to 8 minutes, 16 seconds and multiply it by the dozens of email you receive every day, you have a problem. A serious problem. No wonder you do your best work in the evening and on the weekends!

It’s impossible to provide the people you lead undivided attention and answer the pressing problems of business today with breakthrough solutions when you’re interrupted every few minutes, no matter how cool the ring tone. Turn all this stuff off.

PRACTICE 3: Do it or defer it

During the specific times of your day when you check your email, use the letters D, D, D, and F to guide you. No, that’s not your son’s latest report card (Okay, maybe it is). It’s a filter for processing inbound email.

When you read a specific piece of email and can take action on it in two minutes or less, do it and remove the email from your inbox. That’s the first D.

If you can’t take action on it in two minutes or less, assign it to a future day. That is, defer it, the second D. You can revisit this task later and decide whether or not it’s really something you need to do, but for now it’s out of your inbox.

Inbound Email Processing System

Under no circumstances allow your email inbox to become an additional task list. It’s merely a temporary staging area for incoming messages. That’s all.

Click and drag software exists to quickly turn an email into a task with the subject line becoming the title of the task and any attached documents being placed in the Notes section. This makes sifting through your email quick and easy. Follow the two minute rule and keep your email check-ins limited to 10-15 minutes or less.

PRACTICE 4: Delete it or file it

If an email is not actionable, that is, if it’s something you need to know and not something you need to do. Read it and delete it, the third D. Also, immediately delete anything that’s irrelevant to achieving your highest priorities and pre-delete unwanted email by unsubscribing to unnecessary newsletters and using your spam filters to the greatest degree.

If you must save certain email to refer to it later, create folders to put them in that are outside your inbox. That is, file it: F. Keep these folders, however, to an absolute minimum. I send email like this to Evernote where I keep track of all the digital details of my life and leadership.

PRACTICE 5: Get your email inbox to zero

Now use the D, D, D, F system to get your inbox to zero at the end of every day and, with the few stragglers that are left in your inbox that you didn’t get to at the end of the day, absolute zero at the end of every week. Achieving this goal will be one of the most liberating things you can do for both your business and your life.

I’ve worked with executives whose inboxes were filled with thousands of email, and it destroyed their ability to execute crisply as important details fell through the cracks. If this is you, schedule an undisturbed block of 2-3 hours as soon as possible to sift through all your email using the D, D, D, F designations and get your email inbox to zero.

Now stay on top of your email every day. If your email inbox gets cluttered again, schedule another appointment with yourself to get back to zero.

I have three messages currently in my inbox, and that number will be zero by the end of the business day. I can’t tell you how freeing it is not to have the mountain of email screaming at me. The same could be true for you.