Never start your day with email. It’s a productivity tip I see touted too often. There’s even a book devoted to it.
The problem is likely one you’re familiar with: as soon as you look at email, your day becomes hijacked by what’s in your inbox. You’re answering questions, checking out promotions, and generally falling down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Productivity experts encourage us to take control of our day by starting with an important project instead. Check your email later, they advise. Wait until midday, they tell us. Avoid email all together, we’re told.
If that works for you, great. But most of us can’t completely avoid email, and many of us—especially freelancers—shouldn’t wait until later in the day to check messages. Email is how our clients reach us with offers of work and answers to pressing questions. If we wait, we could miss out on something critical.
And while you may have your day planned out already, copyeditors depend on others for their work. We must communicate with others.
Starting your day with email makes sense for editors.
But there’s another reason to start your day with email—one that makes me wonder if productivity experts follow their own advice.
We’ve all been taught that before a workout, we should warm up. Our muscles need to stretch and loosen up before they can perform at their peak.
Your workday is like an extended workout. Our brains need a warm-up activity to prepare for the day ahead. Getting an overview of what’s in your inbox can prepare your mind for your work.
The key is limiting your time with your inbox. You must be disciplined enough to know when to stop.
It helps to have a system for tackling your inbox first thing. If we just dive in, we’ll soon be drowning. Here’s how I (and Chris Guillebeau) tackle email first, or nearly first, thing:
- Treat it like work. Checking email from your phone while still in pajamas might seem cozy and even efficient, but will you neglect breakfast or a workout first thing if you start work immediately on waking? A morning routine that addresses your personal needs not only helps you wake up but ensures that they get done.
- Limit the time. Determine how much of a warm-up you need before starting a more demanding task. Is 10 minutes enough? 15? Find what works best for you.
- Prioritize your inbox. You’ll never be able to answer every email in one sitting, and many emails can wait. Get an overview of what’s in your inbox and answer only what requires an immediate response. Filters, labels, and tags can help make the job easier.
- Use templates. Write emails quicker by creating templates of common statements. PhraseExpander and TextExpander are good tools for this.
- Stick to your end time. I struggle with this one: “I’ll respond to just one more message and then get started.” Beware! This is where procrastination begins.
You can continue your good email management throughout the day by:
- Limiting how often and how long you check email throughout the day. Can you limit it to three 10-minute sessions a day? No, I can’t either. Put the effort into finding a balance that works for you.
- Scheduling time to deal with emails that will take longer. My editing students sometimes ask questions that require research. I will add responding to such a question to that day’s task list, separate from my email time. This helps me set aside enough time.
- Scheduling time to delete and archive messages. A break between bigger tasks might include 10 minutes of deleting irrelevant messages.
- Avoiding email during your most productive times of day. Editing requires concentration, and it can take up to 16 minutes (PDF) to regain lost concentration. Don’t let email interrupt these important periods.
No system is perfect, of course. We all have days when we don’t have the discipline required or when events take over, and it’s all we can do to keep the plates spinning. Most days, these tips (and a few others) keep me in touch with others while protecting my workday. Give one or two a try, and rescue your workday!