Want to spend less time on email in 2018? Maybe there's another way.

The year begins. After a blessed period of more or less enforced holiday for everyone, we’re all back at our keyboards again. And before you know it, the in-box is heaving again. Bloody email. 

If you asked office-based workers for one New Year’s Resolution that would make work better, I’m willing to bet that “spending less time on email” would come pretty near the top. It comes up in virtually every conversation I have with people about their frustrations at work. 

Managers are also becoming increasingly aware of the effects on productivity. Numerous studies support their fears. To cite just one, by the Radicati Group in 2015, we receive, on average, 88 emails a day. If we attended to every one of these emails as it came in, we’d be interrupted every 5 or 6 minutes. In reality, we spend about 25% of our working day managing emails. 

So, we know the extent of the problem. We just don’t seem any closer to solving it.

But I just wonder if we’re framing the problem wrongly. 

Is it about spending less time on email? Or is this wishful thinking? Is email not now a fixture of working life? Rather than wishing it away, are we not better off figuring out how we can accommodate it and organise ourselves around it more effectively? 

Look on the bright side: even if email does take up a quarter of your day, that still leaves the other three-quarters to play with. How are you using that time? More pertinently, how are you protecting that time so that you can be more productive with it? 

As Alex Pang identifies in his book, Rest, 4-5 hours per day of focused work is all that was required by many of the most prolific and successful people of all time – from Dickens, Darwen, Mann and Poincaré in centuries gone by to contemporaries like Stephen King and Scott Adams. Their secret has been to organise their day so that they can dedicate this amount of time to their most important work: the creative stuff, the thinking stuff, the researching stuff, the writing stuff – you know, the stuff that you never seem to have time for at work any more. 

How can you get that time back?

Well, the good news is that you don’t have to carve out one big window in your diary for it each day. In the modern workplace, that would be largely impossible and, in any case, spending that amount of time in one big hit on focused, productive work is not optimal. 

What the artists and scientists listed above all seem to have figured out is that hard thinking is best done in 90-minute bursts. 

One way or another, that’s how they all organised their day – three stints, usually two in the morning and one in the afternoon (when the brain is tiring a little), of really focused mental exertion. In between times, they do (or did) all the other things everyone else does – notably spending a significant amount of time answering emails (or letters). 

Of course, the fact is that all of these people work (or worked) for themselves – thereby gaining the freedom to organise their time as they fit. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. 

Perhaps, given the demands of office life, three lots of 90 minutes is a stretch. But, for most people I speak to, just carving out one slot of protected time each day would be a huge breakthrough. How can you do that for yourself? Perhaps that’s a better question to be asking yourself this January.

To be clear, part of the answer is reviewing the way you manage email. A big first step is to check your in-box at allotted intervals, rather than constantly being a slave to the alerts in the top right-hand corner of your screen. You can also assign specific slots in your day for writing emails & responding to those which require some thought. 

If this still ends up taking 25% of your day, so be it…at least you can claim back the rest of the time for other work. Realistically, this includes meetings – but, for goodness sake, ban yourself (and others) from checking email on their phones during this time. It should also include some time for yourself (or for you and your close work partner(s)) to focus on something important. 

Block this time out in your diary; leave your desk and find somewhere quiet; put your headphones on – do whatever it takes to protect that time. 

You’ll be amazed how much more productive you become. You’ll be happier too. And this time next year, you might not be worrying so much about bloody email.