Working in Email for Only 30 Minutes a Day

I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity this year.

In January, I started ramping up my working intensity to a level that it hasn’t been at since we sold the business. I’ve also been taking a look at authors who are writing about productivity in 2017.

I’ve noticed that, for me, the productivity landscape has changed.

When we were building our first business, Getting Things Done (“GTD”) was the guidebook for productivity in the digital age. Its concepts recognized and served the specific challenges that the internet — and specifically, email — had introduced into our lives. We used it to mold our email habits and to-do lists.

GTD may very well be the most important business book we’ve ever read, in terms of its day-to-day impact on our business.

But a lot has changed.

Specifically, the role that handsets and social media apps have in our lives and businesses has given us a lot to consider.

GTD doesn’t really have a chapter, or tactics for that matter, on how to handle your Instagram while you’re sitting alone in a diner waiting for food to come. Should you receive Slack notifications on your phone? Some of these technologies are so new and powerful for entrepreneurs, that we haven’t really taken the time to ask, “are they helping – or distracting – me from reaching my goals?” “Are they the source of anxiety?” And so on.

This is all to say: I’ve been taking a fresh look at the role of technology in my life.

Recently, one of my favorite bloggers, Leo Babauta, wrote an interesting article about email. “How to Mindfully Manage Email in 20 Minutes a Day.”

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by your inbox, go check it out. The rest of this article contains an additional suggestion.

(If you prefer to check it out later, the premise is simply to set aside a fixed amount of time you’re allowed to do email everyday and find ways to stick to it).

For knowledge workers (that’s most of us), a task can tend to inflate to the amount of time you give to it (Parkinson’s Law). Ideally then, you’d proactively budget the amount of time you spend in your inbox to clear space for more productive activities in your day (this assumes email isn’t your job).

It’s a lesson I’ve re-learned many times over the years, perhaps most starkly during last year’s DCBKK event. I realized that, throughout the two weeks of absolutely madness, while I was in Bangkok, I stayed completely ‘on top’ of my inbox in less than 30 minutes a day.

That doesn’t mean I replied to everyone, or got everything done — far from it.

What it means, to me, is that I ‘fully processed’ outside requests in 30 minutes a day. Many of these were highly valuable to my projects, many were not. Many I’ll never know. But I got it done.

It’s partly the experience of those two weeks that got me revved up to try to better manage those requests — and their effect on my working life — in 2017.

That brings me back to Leo’s article, wherein he suggests moving emails to a “to-do” folder, if you can’t do them in less than 2 minutes (a classic GTD move).

A reader in the questions section of the article hits on a critical point. GTD, more or less, suggests that tasks that take longer than 2 minutes to complete should be moved to a to-do list. Many simply move these items to an electronic list or to a folder in their inbox called “to-do.” The questioner asked “what happens when it builds up and gets too big to stay after.”

Leo’s answer was: “I don’t have a trick for this, just try to do what I can each day. Sometimes emails and to-dos build up, because I’m focusing on more important things, so at least once a week I try to set aside time to catch up with the smaller, administrative items.”

This question is critical and, if I was answering the same a few months ago, I’d say “eventually I’ll get overwhelmed by my to-do list and it’ll result in the same sorts of problems I was having in my inbox.”

So I’ve got a suggestion.

Instead of moving those emails to a digital list, or a secondary inbox folder, write the to-dos on notecards.

Screen Shot 2017-03-02 at 3.29.11 PM Screen Shot 2017-03-02 at 3.29.03 PM

This has many virtues, but two that immediately present themselves are:

  1. You are forced to frame up the “to-do” in your own words, and outside of the context of email. You should put enough information on the card that you can take action on it offline. This is powerful if you lock yourself away from the web for part of your working day.
  2. The cards are easy to sort and, perhaps most importantly, are very easy to chuck in the bin.

See: hipster PDA (just a bunch of 3 x 5 cards clipped together).

I’ve been using my own version of the ‘Hipster PDA’ for close to a month now and it’s been a breakthrough.

‘To do’ cards can be moved around and organized. You could put them in “do-today” pile (that pile could be propped up against your laptop screen).

Then you could have a ‘do if I’ve got extra time pile’, and put them far to the side of your desk. And so on.

You could do it in a bunch of ways.

The punchline here is that a lot of these cards are going to end up in your trash can and bookshelf.

There’s something cathartic about recognizing that “there’s too many cards” and then deciding to trash them.

Combine Leo’s suggestions with some 3 x 5 cards and I think your system might be more robust.

One final thing.

The 2010’s analog to the 2000’s GTD is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. Deep Work discusses many strategies specifically relevant to the social media age.

I highly recommend it.

We’re having Cal on the podcast on March 23rd, be sure to check that out.



PS, want to receive reminder emails from TMBA? You can subscribe here.