Making better use of email and being more productive

A couple of months ago I took part in a Productivity Blitz with Happy. It's a topic that I'm increasingly jaded by. Tech bros on Medium and work fetishists on LinkedIn write a tonne of posts every week on how you can make the most of every minute of your 100 hour working week + side hustle.

A squirrel panicking finding out there are 3502 unread email A squirrel dropping its food and panicking after realising it has 3502 unread emails

Having said that, this opportunity came along at the perfect time. With the support of Research in Practice, I've dropped down to a four day working week. Having a day a week of looking after my son is lush, but a day less of work has made me time poor. I know that I can work much more efficiently. Focusing on the right things and ensuring that the work I'm doing is adding value is something that I've found challenging.

What's worked

I've heard of The Pomodoro Technique before starting the week of Happy activities, but I hadn't really thought about what uninterrupted time looked like for me. Now that I'm working from home most of the time, I've realised that interruptions aren't just people chatting to me at my desk, they're the constant slew of interruptions from email and Teams.

The 5 minute break at the end of each 25 minutes of focused work has been just as valuable as the work itself. In the past I've crammed in 5 minutes of a podcast whilst making a cuppa, but switching off properly has helped me to relax, refocus and reflect between tasks. This shouldn't be news or surprising, but given that phones and associated platforms are designed to keep us engaged and hooked, it's been a bit of a revelation to me.

It was also helpful to amend the notification settings on various platforms. I turned off email notifications years ago, but Teams is a bit more of an issue, as it's also where we store files. I've now added Sharepoint bookmarks to my browser to avoid going into Teams, and turned off the badges on my toolbar so that I don't have the number of outstanding notifications displayed. This has helped me to close Teams completely between meetings.


Eat 4 Frogs was also useful. I have found it really helpful to plan my work the night before so that I can clarify what I really need to achieve the next day. Alongside this I'm also trying to go without looking at my emails til lunchtime for at least one day a week.

Happy have prompted me to think differently about email. Instead of using my inbox as a place to store jobs to be done, I've been creating appointments to deal with each one by setting up a rule and moved to a 3-2-1-Zero approach. I've long been sceptical of Inbox Zero since reading this brilliant piece by Oliver Burkeman, but allocating time to tasks has helped me to understand what is work to be done and what is information only.

Inspired by WhatsThePont's post on why the email ‘cc’ option undermines the very fabric of society, I've also created a separate folder in my emails where all the emails I'm cc'd into are automatically moved into and marked as read. This has helped to declutter my inbox immensely.

So everything's perfect now right?

I'm yet to get things down to a fine art, and I don't think I ever will. Communication is an inherently human activity, and that means my inbox will never be perfectly managed. But these tools have given me a very helpful starting point.

At the end of the day, things won't change until we consider it at a systemic level. I find it interesting that people slag off platforms like Slack and Teams as time wasters, but email is seen as a valid use of time. It's still talking about and around work without actually doing any. If we can get our heads around that, then we can start changing how we work so that we can better focus on how we improve services that support people to live better lives.

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