If you’re currently employed—and a human—then you know of the great email deluge. You get more of it than you can reply to each day, and often it keeps you from doing your “actual job.” But in this modern world, being on top of your inbox is a must if you’re going to impress your boss and get ahead.
Now, many people judge how well they handle email by the number of emails they crank through. “I spent three hours this afternoon and answered 120 emails” is cause for celebration and bragging rights in most offices. But in most cases, that is a huge mistake.
The truth is, there are three types of emails:
1. Emails that are a quick read and can be answered right away (Reply time: less than five minutes)
2. Emails that require some thought or careful writing, but limited extra “work” (Reply time: 5-30 minutes)
3. Emails that require research or an output to be created (Reply time: 30 minutes or more)
When faced with a block of time to attack their inboxes, most people start with the quickies. It’s satisfying to get them out of the way, the total number of emails in your inbox drops by a lot more, and they don’t require too much brainpower.
But you should actually be taking the opposite approach. It’s the old rock, pebble, sand metaphor: Imagine that you’re given a glass jar representing your time, as well as rocks, pebbles, and sand. The only way to get it all in is to start with the biggest things: your rocks. If you fill your jar with sand first, you’ll never fit everything in.
In email terms, make sure you’re not filling your jar with sand by answering quick and easy emails first—you’ll never get to the big, important ones. Instead, when faced with a two-hour block of time, you should always start with emails that require 30 minutes or more, and get at least one or two of those done before doing any quicker ones. On the other hand, if you only have 15 minutes before your next meeting, that’s the perfect time to get quick emails out of the way.
The easiest way to seamlessly implement this strategy in your daily life is to add two tags (or filters in Gmail): “quick reply” and “requires focused time.” Any emails not tagged would therefore fall into the middle category, requiring five to 30 minutes.
When you know you have a solid block of uninterrupted time, start by opening your focused time folder, and decide which ones you most need to tackle. Recognizing how rare those large blocks of time are is the key to success: When you have one, take full advantage of it! And next time you have a couple minutes to spare while waiting for the bus or in line for coffee, open your “quick reply” folder instead of checking Instagram.