The biggest time suck of my day or, why email haunts me

January 3, 2010

I find the single biggest time suck of my day is email. I know this to be true and I’ve tried several things to control the beast that is my inbox. It’s a huge part of my job (I get 200+ emails a day that demand action on my part) and I can’t just totally let it go. And yet I continue to struggle to keep the email in it’s proper place in my overall plan. I’m magnetically drawn to click on that little envelope icon in my dock.

So, here are 2 strategies that have helped me in my quest to be more productive:

1) When I start my day, I check my emails, just to be sure there are no fires that need to be put out. I allow myself about 20 minutes to respond to various emails that are top priority.

Then, I move away from email and work on my highest priority item for 90 minutes. I keep this time sacred so that I can get as much done as possible. I don’t take calls or instant messages and I never schedule meetings during this window.

Often, spending this time has helped me make great progress on that one important task. It always shocks me how much I can get done in 90 undistracted minutes. After that, whatever the day brings is fine because I moved forward on my most important item on my list.

Apple Mail Apple Mail

2) In order to fight distraction, I’ve set the preferences on my email program (Apple Mail) so that the “unread messages count” does NOT appear in my dock. (How to: Mail: Preferences: General: Dock Unread Count: Set to “none”)

The emails still come in, but I can ignore them much more easily when that little red number isn’t there visually screaming at me. (It goes without saying that I’ve also disabled any audio reminders that email has come in.)

Picture 5 That little red number distracts me

Sure, email’s still a time suck, but it’s not like I’m going to stop using it. The best I can do is to try to control it, rather than it controlling me. Do you have any email control strategies to share? I’d love to hear them!

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

alison January 3, 2010 at 11:28 am

I had no idea that you could turn off that red “counter” on apple’s email. That thing makes me crazy! Thanks for the tip!

Marcia Francois January 3, 2010 at 11:58 am

Hi Meredith

I know exactly what you mean :)

I’ve got a product called Conquer your email – would you like me to send you a copy for you to review on your blog?

I’m told that one tip I share saves people at least 30 mins a day so that could help you out too!

Jessica at Lavender and Lilies January 3, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I know what you mean about the little number on Apple Mail. It kills me. Especially when the numbers hit triple digits. Ugh.

Deren Monday January 3, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Being the only PC user to ever visit this site, I feel a bit out of place…

But, we PC-heads have the same issue, except not as pretty… it’s just an envelope at the bottom-right side of the desktop that distracts us.

I attempt to check emails twice a day, at set periods of time (11AM and 4PM for me). I actually schedule this time into my calendar. If its there, I don’t freak out as much thinking email will be neglected, and I can focus on more important tasks.

I also covered the little message notification light on my desk phone with tape. Since it was clear tape, it did not work too well, so I then used a black Sharpie. Much better…

carlee January 4, 2010 at 7:07 am

My tip is to turn my Blackberry onto “OFF” mode so that I doesn’t distract me every time an email comes in. Helps a lot!

Meredith Meredith January 4, 2010 at 8:19 am

@ Deren: you’re most certainly NOT the only PC user on this site, but, I am a Mac girl, so I hope that PC users will always speak up with their own strategies as you have here. I can use all the help I can get from all the PC Penelopes!

Thank you, too, Deren for proving that Penelopes are not just women.

I love the idea of scheduling times to check emails into your calendar.

@ Carlee: great idea. I know the Blackberry can be a major pull on attention, too.

Dale Michael January 4, 2010 at 8:54 am

Penelope, You’re ideas are great but what if we don’t wish to get anything done? Do you have any ideas on how to waste time more efficiently? If so, please have all your friends and yourself e-mail me. Thanks for you consideration.

Meredith Meredith January 4, 2010 at 9:46 am

Hi Dale! Always great to get some levity on the site!

I’ve got plenty of time-waster ideas. I don’t get to indulge often, but when I do, my two favorite time wasters are episodes of Law and Order (all three varieties) on TV and Prime Suspect on DVD.

Bneato January 4, 2010 at 10:01 am

I’m turning off the red circle/number reminder asap (again, had no idea)–love this!

Kimberly January 4, 2010 at 10:28 am

I am a PC Penny myself. Email, IM, and texting are a bit of an addiction for me. Seriously, I am TOTALLY addicted. Since I can’t give it up, I just have to continually work towards setting limits.

Amanda @ Serenity Now January 4, 2010 at 5:53 pm

No strategies, other than closing my laptop. ;) ;)

Amanda January 5, 2010 at 10:43 am

Oh mannnnn!! I wish I could limit myself to 20 minutes. I have a feeling I would get A LOT more done during my day! Your blog is beautiful, I love the layout and soft, classic design! Very chic!


ohbrooke January 5, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I started using a brilliant strategy I learned from Natalie Jose for gmail. Here’s her blog post about it:

Instead of “orders” I have my emails sorted by emails coming in from my blog, website, and regular emails. Then I have a “to do” label for emails I have read but still require action on my part. So far, so good!

Meredith Meredith January 5, 2010 at 3:07 pm

@ Kimberly, I love “PC Penny”. So cute. I may use that!

@ Brooke: thanks for the link. That’s a really useful strategy from Natalie. I’m going to think about how that may help my overburdened inbox.

@ Amanda: thanks so much for the compliment. Let me introduce you to Brooke from “OhBrooke”, ( ). She’s here in the comments.

She is the one who is responsible for the beauty of the Penelope Loves Lists website. She’s a genius!

Raru January 6, 2010 at 6:22 am

Have the same problem ;(
Ohbrooke has great ideas :) )) I have to try it.

Jessica January 6, 2010 at 7:45 am

I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one fighting email for more productivity! One thing I did at the start of the year was unsubscribed ruthlessly from just about everything. Goodbye Blue Fly–you’ll tempt me no more! Something tells me I’ll be saving time *and* money with this change ;-) . For my “real” emails, I use a system pretty similar to what Natalie describes at the link Brook shared, though I see a few tweaks in there that I’m going to add and see if that helps me stay on top of my box a bit better.

Carly January 6, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Hi Meredith,

I completely agree and your inbox can easily get very overwhelming if not managed well. What works for me is setting a few email ‘rules’ so that as emails comes in its automatically sorted based on the rules I’ve programmed. Then at a glace I can see what is in my friends and family folder, verses my Etsy store folder, verses comments from my blogs and so on. I have found this method to work really well for me because I like my inbox very clean and orderly.

Great blog by the way! Love all the tips and focus on organization. I’ll be back to visit often!

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