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How to spend way less time on email every day

Matt Plummer

The average professional spends 28 percent of the work day reading and answering email, according to a McKinsey analysis. That amounts to a staggering 2.6 hours spent and 120 messages received per day.

Most professionals have resorted to one of two extreme coping mechanisms: there are the inbox-zero devotees who compulsively keep their inboxes clear, and there are those who have essentially given up.

Our team at Zarvana—a company that teaches research-backed time-management practices—set out to see if there is a data-supported way to reduce the time spent on email without sacrificing effectiveness. What we found surprised even us: we can save more than half that time. Here are the five ways to get it back.

By implementing just these five practices, email can once again become a tool for effective work.

Turn off notifications and check your email hourly

On average, professionals check their email 15 times per day, or every 37 minutes. But only 11 percent of customers/clients and 8 percent of coworkers expect a response in less than an hour. The solution is simple: turn off notifications and schedule time (about 5 to 8 minutes) every hour to check email.

Move every email out of your inbox the first time you read it

On average, professionals have more than 200 emails in their inbox and receive 120 new ones each day but respond to only 25 percent of them. The antidote is the single-touch rule: after reading an email the first time, either archive it or delete it.

Use search, not folders, to refind emails

On average, people create a new email folder every five days and have 37 on hand. But this approach—clicking on folders to find what you need—is 50 percent slower than searches using common operators (e.g., “”).

Set up just two email folders and use shortcuts to archive emails there

The 37 folders stacked up on the left-hand side of most users’ email application affects more than just refinding time. Roughly 10 percent of the total time people spend on email is spent filing messages they want to keep, a process that involves two phases: deciding where the emails should go and then moving them to the selected folders. Most people require only two folders: one for emails that we read when they hit the inbox but which also require further action (what we call “Archive”) and one for emails that we might want to read at a later date (what we call “Reading”). Automated rules or filters help us avoid the risk of dragging and dropping emails into the wrong place; keyboard shortcuts are more than 50 percent faster than using a mouse.

Avoid processing irrelevant or less important emails individually

According to data from SaneBox, 62 percent of all email is not important and can be processed in bulk. But even bulk-processing takes time: just deleting an email takes an average of 3.2 seconds, adding up to more than three minutes per day. To break the habit of processing irrelevant emails individually, use a three-part approach: automated filtering for newsletters you actually use, unsubscribing from those you don’t, and blocking spam and other emails that keep coming after you’ve tried to unsubscribe.

Email has become the bane of 21st-century workers’ existence. By implementing just these five practices, email can once again become a tool for effective work.

This article was originally published at Harvard Business Review and is republished here with permission.


Time Management
Portrait of Matt Plummer

Matt Plummer

Matt Plummer (@mtplummer) is the founder of Zarvana, which offers online programs and coaching services to help working professionals become more productive by developing time-saving habits. Before starting Zarvana, Matt spent six years at Bain & Company spin-out, The Bridgespan Group, a strategy and management consulting firm for nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropists.