Email Batching: The Secret to Getting Ahead
There are thousands of productivity tricks, but only a few deliver outsized results. Top of that list is email batching.
The simple trick of checking email twice a day (and no more) will have a dramatic impact on your work output. Once you see the light, you’ll be amazed how your colleagues get any work done.
I’ve been email batching since I read The Four-Hour Work Week in my early twenties. Fifteen years later, surprisingly few people have adopted the practice. It’s a great way to get ahead of the herd, while reducing your daily stress.
In this article, we’ll discuss why email batching is so impactful and how to implement it today.
Why is Email Batching Important?
Checking your emails is fun, easy and rewarding. It’s like playing whack-a-mole at work. Every five minutes, something new pops up and you never know what it’s going to be. Getting lots of emails makes people feel useful and important, and swiftly responding to them gives an addictive high.
Checking emails is easy because you don’t have to think. Instead of having a concrete plan for the day, you can mindlessly address whatever comes in the front door. For many people, this avoids the problem of knowing what their true priorities ought to be.
Productive people need a different approach because they already know where they want to spend their time. They need to remove any distractions that take them away from their core projects. Email batching is the ideal method for this because it minimises exposure to the endless interruptions lurking in your inbox.
Email batching provides several key benefits:
- Fewer context switches. Each time you switch between tasks, your brain takes a while to get back in the groove. This impacts your productivity because you spend less time operating at full speed. If you check your emails every twenty minutes, you won’t ever get in the zone on your projects.
- Increased efficiency. Repetitive tasks, like email, are most efficiently handled in a batch. You will spend less time processing email if you do it twice a day, versus fifty times a day.
- Lower stress. Checking emails is stressful. Email batching helps you switch off for longer periods, allowing you to embrace a flow state on your key projects. This is far more relaxing than whacking moles in your inbox.
Relax – Nobody Will Notice
Some people reject email batching because they don’t want to appear unresponsive. This is wrong on many levels.
Nobody is going to notice when you switch to reading emails once or twice a day. I’ve been doing this for a decade, across four companies, and have never had anyone comment on it. People don’t expect instant answers to emails. If they need an instant answer, they will phone you.
Now, perhaps you have trained your boss to expect instant responses via email. This is not a permanent problem, and you can resolve it in two ways. The best option is to have a chat about your desire to be more productive. Tell your boss that you are trialling a new approach to email for the next two weeks, which means you may take longer to reply. Explain how you can be reached quickly (e.g. by phone) and then start your experiment. If your boss rejects this idea, find a new job.
The second approach is to wean them off the expectation of quick responses. Over several weeks, take longer to respond to their emails. Eventually, you will be able to batch emails three times a day. Keep going until that’s down to twice a day.
How to Batch Email
Now that we understand why email batching is useful (and why no one will notice), let’s get to the details. Batching email boils down to the following tasks:
- Scheduling time to check your emails twice a day
- Clearing aside old emails, so you start from a clean slate
- Processing each batch of emails using the Five D’s process
Let’s cover those in more detail.
1. Schedule Time for Email Processing
It may sound strange to schedule time for email, but this is a critical step. If you don’t plan when to process your email, you will lapse into checking it all day.
I recommend scheduling two thirty-minute blocks in your calendar. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. Make sure the morning slot is at least two hours after you start work.
These slots are the only time you’re allowed to read mail. Treat them like any other meeting and move them if a clash occurs. Don’t be afraid to make people schedule meetings around your email time. It’s important.
2. Start From an Empty Inbox
Each time you process a batch of email, you will review every email in your inbox. This won’t work if your inbox contains thousands of old emails. We need to clear the decks to allow you to start batching effectively.
The important thing is to make this swift and painless. Nobody has the time to sort and file thousands of old emails. Select them all and move them out of your inbox, either to a “Misc” folder (if you use Outlook) or archive them (if you use Gmail).
Going forward, you will process all the emails received each day, so there will never again be a huge pile in your inbox.
3. Process the Batch (the Five D’s)
When your calendar tells you it’s email time, fire up your inbox. Working from oldest email to newest, read each email thread and take one of the following five actions:
- Delete – This should be the default option. Most email is pointless, and keeping it “just in case” is a waste of time and space.
- Deposit – If the email contains useful information but you don’t need to respond, file it. Create folders (or labels) for important projects and topics. For everything else, stuff it in the Misc folder we made earlier (or archive it, in Gmail).
- Deflect – If you’re not the ideal person to handle this email, pass it over to them. Delegation is not just for managers. A useful phrase is “No need to CC me going forward”, which helps reduce the traffic in your inbox.
- Do – If the email needs a response, and you can write it in two minutes or less, just get it done. Two minutes doesn’t allow you to craft a thoughtful reply, so only take this approach for very short responses.
- Defer – If you need to do some thinking (or some actual work) before replying, then create a TODO list item. File the email, so you can refer to it later.
The last step, “Defer”, is the reason email batching is so efficient. By avoiding getting bogged down in actual work, we can fly through hundreds of emails in half an hour. This also prevents your inbox from setting your work priorities. By adding email-related work to your main TODO list, you can prioritise it against your strategic tasks.
Start Today and Don’t Look Back
Email batching has been the most important factor in my productivity journey. It’s impossible to get meaningful work done unless you control a significant chunk of the time you spend in the office each day. To do that, you have to live outside your inbox and make deliberate decisions with your time.
No matter how many emails you receive, you can complete batches within thirty minutes or less. You can spend the rest of the day focusing on stuff you think is important (rather than demands from your inbox).
Once you start batching, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it.