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11 Ways the Most Productive People Handle Their Emails

Even though it’s meant as a tool for productivity, email end up as nothing more than a distraction. Productivity expert Jocelyn K. Glei explains how to use email more effectively in her book ‘Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done.’

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An empty inbox is never their goal

Email is a crucial factor in accomplishing your goals, but in and of itself it isn’t meaningful. Sure, having zero unread messages gives you short-term satisfaction, but an empty inbox says nothing about your productivity. In fact, you’ll end up fighting a losing battle as it starts to refill immediately. Keep your focus on your important messages, and don’t stress if you don’t get to read every single email that comes your way. “If you can accept that it’s just not going to happen, you’ve taken the first step toward removing yourself from the productivity rat race,” writes Glei. “In the grand scheme of things, email is just one small part of doing great work.” These Gmail hacks may save you an hour every day.

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They start their day with more meaningful work

Checking your email first thing in the morning immediately frames your day around other people’s demands. Rather than heading straight for your unread messages, take advantage of the peak energy you have when you first get to the office by first working on your most meaningful tasks for at least an hour. Then, when you finally do open your inbox, you’ll already be well into a productive day. Check out these other ways to be more productive in your first hour of work.

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They cut down on the back-and-forth

Streamline your emails by answering each message as fully as you can, so the receiver has less need to send follow-up questions. For instance, if a coworker asks you to lunch, instead of reacting with a simple “Sure!” specify a date, time, and location that work for you. (Related: Here’s what healthy people do on their lunch breaks.) Your colleague can give a simple yes or no, rather than stretching the conversation out for several more messages.

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Email isn’t their only way to communicate

Because you can’t read tone or body language in a written message, email can lead to misinterpretations and frustration. When you’re having a delicate conversation, brainstorming, or making complex decisions, skip the email chain and pick up the phone or drop into your coworker’s office. “You’ll be rescuing yourself, and everyone else, from those annoying email threads that drag on for 15-20 messages and constantly interrupt you throughout the day,” writes Glei. Avoid these annoying emails you have, according to science.

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They use the two-minute rule

Follow this rule of thumb from productivity expert David Allen: If you can finish your response in two minutes, send it right away. If you procrastinate, you’ll end up using more effort to find it and reprocess it later. “This does not mean you should respond to all emails that take less than two minutes,” writes Glei, “rather, it means that you should respond to all emails that you can process quickly and that relate to ‘people who matter’ or your meaningful work goals.” Anything that isn’t a priority can wait until later—if you happen to have time. Here are tricks to help you be productive when you want to procrastinate.

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Folders are their friends

With just one inbox folder, your messages will be jumbled into one chaotic void. Organize your emails into folders that will keep you on track. One easy setup: “reply” for ones you need to respond to, “waiting” for those that need to hear back from, and “archive” for messages you might reference later. Consider putting your spam emails into a specific folder, and before unsubscribing from an email list, read this first. (Related: Read these morning habits of highly organized people.)

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They turn off notifications

“There are two types of emails: ‘reactors,’ who rely on notifications and near-constant monitoring of their inboxes to nibble at their email throughout the day, and ‘batchers,’ who set aside specific chunks of time to power through their email so they can ignore it the rest of the day,” writes Glei. As soon as a new email pops on reactors’ screens, their focus is gone, so turn off your own notifications to cut down on distractions (but if you have ADHD, you can turn distraction into your superpower.) Instead, make yourself a batcher by setting aside two or three 30- to 60-minute chunks every day to check and reply to emails. Constantly checking notifications? Consider these signs you’re way too addicted to your phone.

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They use a different calendar

If your calendar is linked up with your email, you might be hesitant to turn off all notifications. Create a loophole by syncing your email calendar with a separate calendar app. Turn notifications on for the app only—you’ll get all the event alerts you need, without the distracting email pop-ups.

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They only get notifications from certain people

While it’s easy enough to hold off on a response to a client for a few hours, your boss might need a faster reply. Gmail and iPhone apps allow you to select priority senders, setting off notifications for only those people. Set up your own to keep you focused without stressing that you could be missing an urgent message. Don’t miss these other things highly organized people do on their smartphones.

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They don’t let others’ stress get to them

Other people have different schedules and priorities than you, so if you receive an urgent-sounding email when you’re crunched for time, you have two choices: sacrifice your own productivity to switch tasks, or keep working with the nagging feeling that the sender is getting impatient. To satisfy the sender, rattle off a quick reply acknowledging his or her concerns, and giving an estimate of when you’ll be able to address it fully. “People crave context. If you merely help them understand where their email sits within your workload, they can be surprisingly understanding,” writes Glei. “What’s more, expectation-setting emails can help you relax by allowing you to reassert control over your schedule and release any feeling of obligation about meeting someone else’s timetable.” Here’s how to tell if you’re showing symptoms of secondhand stress from other people.

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They prioritize their replies

Consider your relationship to the sender when you’re going through your messages. Answer an email to your boss quickly and thoughtfully, but don’t kill yourself over your wording to someone you’ve never met—in fact, you shouldn’t feel obligated to reply to everyone in the first place. “Your working life and your credibility are built on relationships—be mindful of them,” writes Glei.

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They don’t let email keep them from real work

“If you got 200+ letters a day, you would never think it was realistic to respond to all of them. Why should email be any different?” writes Glei. “Politely responding to every single email you receive is all well and good, but not if it makes you a stranger to your own goals.” Find out more about why emails are so tempting and how to handle your inbox strategically with her book Unsubscribe.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.