Even before we all started working remotely, email was sucking up an unbelievable amount of our workdays. Studies disagree on the exact number - Four hours a day? Five? - but every one of them found a jaw-dropping number. Now that many of us at home, the danger of getting lost all day in your inbox is even greater.

And now is the time you can least afford to be distracted by minutiae. So how do you free up time to concentrate on what really matters? 

Computer science professor and Deep Work author Cal Newport has spent years studying how professionals carve out time for difficult, important work, rather than the chatter of nonsense that often swallows up our days. In a recent post on his blog he offered three simple tweaks to your email routine that can help you spend hours less in your inbox: 

1. Use a meeting scheduling service. 

Going back and forth on email is the least efficient way to schedule meetings. Instead, "use calend.ly, use Acuity, use the features built into Microsoft Outlook,  and if you're setting up a group meeting, use Doodle," Newport begs. All these services beat email. 

2. Don't use your inbox as a to-do list.  

If you use your inbox as your to-do list, of course you're going to spend an incredible amount of time there. What you do instead will probably depend on your situation and work flow, but here's what works for Newport:  

I currently inhabit four professional roles: writer, teacher, researcher, and director of graduate studies for my department. For each of these roles, I set up a Trello board that includes a column for: things I'm working on actively, thing I'm waiting to hear back about from someone else, things on my "back burner" that I'm not yet ready to tackle, and  a list of ambiguous or complicated things that I need to spend some time on figuring out. Every email I receive immediately gets moved to one of these columns in one of my Trello boards.

This setup might seem complicated but it helps him focus on one role at a time, "preventing energy-sapping context shifts," he says. 

3. Hold office hours.

Some requests, like "picking your brain" or "bouncing an idea off you," just don't work well over email and can be huge time sucks. Newport suggests an alternative borrowed from his life as a professor: "Setup a recurring Zoom meeting for set times every week where you guarantee to be present. As much as possible, when people send you an ambiguous request or initiate a conversation that will require a lot of back and forth, point them toward your office hours schedule and tell them to stop by next time they can to discuss."