How to reclaim your schedule & your inbox

Email & the hidden costs of multitasking

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I'll go straight out and say it: I have a big problem with with email. For many reasons.

But mainly because it forces me to multitask. I used to be proud of my multitasking abilities but I have come to hate multitasking. There's nothing efficient about it. The truth is that it pulls you in too many directions and diminishes how effective you are.

Now listen to this fun fact: According to the American Psychological Association shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.

So that's about 16 hours of productive work time gone. Yikes.

And the more you switch between tasks, the more time you lose.

Switching between tasks reduces your productivity because your brain needs to disengage from one task and refocus on the new one. And it takes your brain longer with each switch to re-focus on each task.

So let's say you are switching between 4 or 5 different tasks or projects, one of them just being keeping up with your email. This is the impact on your productivity:

 

 
 Weinberg, Gerald M. (1992) Systems Thinking 

Weinberg, Gerald M. (1992) Systems Thinking 

 

 

But wait, there's more!

Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task while you know that an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.

And what does 10 IQ points represent? A lot.  

Not only does multitasking interfere profoundly with memory but Wilson showed that forcing our brains to concentrate on several things at once causes cognitive losses even greater than those induced by smoking marijuana.

And I think we can all agree that's hardly ideal for anyone running a business!

Personally, I was finding I was having too many days sucked into reading and answering emails all day long. The worst part of that was wondering where the day had gone because I felt like I had achieved very little while working flat out!

In fact the last time this happened I got so frustrated that I knew I either had to change how I was organizing my working day or burn my inbox. It had to stop.

That's when I started reading as much as I could about productivity and managing email.  I discovered that there's an awful lot written about this subject! I read a lot, tried a variety of approaches, and found what worked for me.

If any of this frustration resonates for you, here are my tips for you on how to stop dreading your inbox and get back to having productive days.

Also, implementing these tips has made a big difference to my overall stress level.

Because apart from anything else: "Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking." 

 

5 tips & tools on how to regain control of your inbox

1  |   PRIORITIZE YOUR TASKS

Being intentional with how you use your time is super important, not just because it means you end up being more productive with work, but because it also allows you to schedule more time for yourself and your loved ones outside of work.

To do this, I recommend choosing 3-5 top tasks for each day (no more!) and prioritizing them in order of importance.

Each Friday, I’ll make a list in GQueues of the taks for the week ahead. GQueues syncs my tasks to my Google calendar so I can be sure I am not planning too many tasks on days I have meetings. I can also drag an drop tasks from one day to another in my calendar to make sure I am not overloading any one day (a common problem!) For time-sensitive tasks I then go in and add times to my tasks in GQueues and that also syncs to my calendar. 

This not only gives me a prioritized list of tasks and appointments for the week, but stops me planning unrealistic weeks with too many action items. 

 

2  |   READ YOUR EMAIL AT SET TIMES OF DAY

Every time an email comes in and pings at you, it encourages multi-tasking. It's asking you to stop what you're doing and do something else. On top of that, most people receive an average of 200 emails a week so we're not just talking about a large number of interruptions but a large amount of time.

According to Carleton University researchers, people now spend one-third of their time at the office – and half of the time they work at home – reading and answering emails. And 30 per cent of that time, the emails are neither urgent nor important. That’s 11.7 hours spent at work and 5.3 hours at home — every week.
— Carleton University

17 hours a week spent processing emails is probably NOT the best use of your time! 

To try to cut some of this time, I have started checking email at set times a day which I try very hard to stick to.

This means I am not checking email first thing in the morning. I reserve that time for tasks that need my most focused attention and brainpower. I'll tell you now, it's made a huge difference. Those first 2 hours of the day are so precious you should guard them carefully.

I do check email at regular intervals – late morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon – and then I cut off email. Yesterday I switched it off and went for a walk with my son. And I felt 100% better for it.

Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, proposed that you check email once a day – or less! Gosh wouldn't that be nice! If you are like me, and most of the people I work with, that just does not feel feasible. But try dealing with your email in batches at set times of day to eliminate multi-tasking during the other parts of your day.

BONUS TIP ➳  Switch off notifications on your phone and computer for that protected non-email time in the mornings and evenings.

 

3  |   Start batching ALL YOUR tasks WHEN POSSIBLE

 

Batching your email processing time is a much more effective us of time and the same goes for all the tasks you do throughout your day. I now block out a full 3 hours for producing blog posts or social media content, instead of doing it bit by bit. It saves so much time doing it in batches because I don’t need to start up over and over and pick up the thread of my thinking each time.

Also if you're running a marketing campaign you have so many pieces to keep track of. If you're constantly having to pick up all those pieces it's much more likely you'll drop one.If your brain is constantly switching between brainstorming and editing, it’s slowing you down tremendously.

So take a moment to think about which tasks you can batch. Make a list and block out time to handle these tasks in one time period in your day. This can be things like writing, designing, answering phone calls and oh yes, responding to email.

 

4  |    Don’t READ your email UNTIL YOU'RE READY TO ACT ON IT

When you do check your email it's super important that you act on it the first time you read it.

Don't read an email and then leave it there to act on later. Because that means you're reading the email twice, and then thinking about what action to take twice. And with 200 emails that adds up fast.

Here's what you can do when you check your email:

  1. Read it
  2. Decide how you need to respond to it
  3. Act on it.
  4. Delete it or Archive it so you no longer have to look at it and process it each time you open your inbox.

If the email involves is a task that requires further action, move it to your task list. If it needs to be completed on a specific day and time, give it a deadline on your calen dar (or assign it a due date if you're in Asana or GQueues).

 

5  |    USE EMAIL TOOLS

 

Here are a couple of tips to help you save time with email:

  1. Create templates for emails you have to write frequently
  2. Write subject lines that tell the recipient what you want them to know. The subject line of the email should tell them the topic of the email and any urgent action required:

–    Action Required + Date
–    FYI + Action Required
–    FYI + No Action Required
–    Reply by – Date

3. Use filters to send messages to specific folders

4. Unsubscribe from newsletters and special offers you don't read. You can use unroll.me. This service shows you all of your email subscriptions and allows for you to choose which ones you want to unsubscribe from. A great way to clean out your inbox so you can pay attention to the emails you want to.

5. When you are batching your emails it might not be the right time to send a response. You can use Right Inbox  to schedule emails to be sent, as well as set recurring emails. Phew.

 

RESOURCES

Want to read more about this topic? Here are the 3 books on this topic that I enjoyed the most and implemented most effectively:

The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less – by Christine Carter Ph.D. 

Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style – by Carson Tate

The 4-Hour Workweek – by Timothy Ferriss

 

In the comments below, please let me know your #1 tip for staying productive. I'd love to know!

 

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