Our productivity levels can easily be dampened by today’s ever-growing influx of messages and communications. We are living in an age with multiple, rapid streams of conversation competing for our attention — on top of the average employee’s 88 new emails per day, we’re receiving more Teams messages than ever before plus regular work-related and non-work related phone notifications buzzing on our desk.
With emails alone taking up three-plus hours per day of our precious time, what can we do to stay on top of our inbox and other communication platforms in today’s workplace?
As the saying goes, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes, the most effective productivity tools are the ones that are tried and tested — all we need to do is pull them into our modern world of bright, flashing messaging platforms and always-online statuses.
Inbox Zero is a system introduced by Merlin Mann, in 2006. The strategy involves addressing all new messages as they come in, with the ideal inbox being one that leaves nothing unread. Mann suggests that when we receive a new email, we should make a judgement on what to do with it:
- Delete — Get rid of it.
- Delegate — Transfer it to a team member or colleague.
- Respond — Recognise which emails require a direct response.
- Defer — Schedule a time in your calendar or to-do list to take action.
- Do — Prioritise and address as soon as possible.
The key to Inbox Zero is being intentional around how we deal with our messages. This can help us to manage our workload more smoothly, and therefore improve our productivity. And, almost twenty years on from Mann’s original idea, we can use these same principles to better manage our notifications in today’s post-pandemic world.
Here are some top tips for utilising the Inbox Zero principles in 2023:
- Set notification preferences: Notifications are developed to grab our attention and send our brain into alert mode. This can quickly become distracting. Many platforms allow you to customise which notifications appear on your screen and when, so turn off notifications for channels or chats that are less important or distracting and can in turn improve productivity.
- Manage messages habitually: It’s important to attend to your messages to prevent crucial information or actions from falling through the cracks, but interruptions to our focus can be costly — with studies showing that it can take at least 20 mins following a distraction to get our momentum back. Allocate a set time in your daily routine to go through your inbox and/or activity dashboard for each platform and apply the Inbox Zero process.
- Clarify expectations: With the growing array of communication platforms at our fingertips in today’s workplace , it can be confusing to know which medium to use to send a particular message. So, make sure that your team or colleagues are clear on how and when to communicate with you. Whether it’s a phone call, a text message, an email or a message on Teams or Slack — decide which is best for differing levels of urgency and let your team know.
- Establish boundaries with colleagues: If you’re working remotely or with flexible hours, it’s important to be clear on when you can respond to messages. Research has shown that many of us are tempted to replace our physical commutes with more work. This extension of our days can increase fatigue and decrease overall productivity, so let your colleagues know when you’re not available to avoid the temptation to respond out-of-hours.
- Use automation: Many platforms have tools that can help you to manage your messages automatically. For example, in Outlook, you can set up rules to move messages to specific folders or channels based on who sent them and other criteria — this can be very useful for non-urgent emails that want to read at your own leisure!
As the pressures and demands of today’s workplace continue to grow and more of our time is spent online, keeping on top of our virtual channels of communication has never been more important. Being intentional rather than reactive about the way that we manage our messages can help to create more time in our schedules, to stay focused, and therefore ultimately improve our productivity levels.