The golden rule that helps you get your inbox under control

Research has shown email accounts for more than a quarter of employees' workdays, but there is a way to regain that time, Paul Argenti writes for the Harvard Business Review.

Argenti is professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He says that one of the first lessons he teaches annually to MBA students is that the core of time management is knowing what your priorities are—and protecting time you plan to spend on those priorities.

This is the reason email can cause so much stress, he argues. It is a tempting distraction from our core priorities and can get in the way of making progress on longer-term projects. The average person checks their email around 70 times daily, and some people check their email as many as 350 times daily, according to a 2012 McKinsey & Company report.

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Once you decide what's worth your time and what is not, you can begin to set some boundaries with email. Argenti recommends two steps to getting your inbox under control.

First, he writes, remember that email might seem urgent, but it's likely that very few of the emails you receive relate to your most important priorities. That's why it annoys us—it keeps us away from the things we care about more.

Argenti recommends making a list of your most important priorities and assigning time to work toward each one. This will make it easier for you to know at each moment whether email is really the best way to spend your time—or if you have something more important to do.

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The second step is to refine your own email strategy. Argenti recommends a golden rule for email: The best way to receive fewer emails is to send fewer emails, because every message you send typically prompts one or more responses. Making sure that every email you send is necessary—and sent to the right people—can help you get control of your inbox. When making these decisions, Argenti recommends four questions to guide your thinking:

1: Who needs to read this email—and who doesn't?

Argenti notes that it's often tempting to throw unnecessary recipients in the CC field; he recommends establishing norms on your team for who gets copied and who doesn't.

2: How can I convey this message in the fewest number of words?

Your colleagues will thank you for getting to the point quickly, or for using a table or chart instead of a paragraph.

3: Is email the right channel for this message, or would a text message, phone call, or other channel be better?

For example, Argenti jokes that the best way to ask his daughter a quick question is probably to send her a message through Snapchat.

4: What kind of response do I need—and have I clearly articulated that in my email?

Don't bury your question, or you may never get the answer you need, Argenti warns. If you're expecting a response, make your request as clear and noticeable as possible (Argenti, Harvard Business Review, 9/7).

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