I've been using a science-based technique for email for the past 20 years and I didn't even realize it. It has made a huge difference not only in making me more productive with my messaging, but really with every activity in my daily routine.
As you know, I'm a big fan of the book How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb. She uses science as a backdrop to explain how to do more effective work and stay super-productive. Once again, she touched on something in the book about how our brains are wired with a limited capacity to process information.
In the book, Webb explains how we sometimes feel over-loaded and over-worked because we try to pack in too much information. With email, it's an even bigger problem. I often feel this chaos overwhelming me when I don't follow a simple process that has worked for so long I can't remember why I'm even doing it.
The tip is to only deal with each email you receive once. What I didn't realize is that this makes perfect sense given what we now know about the brain. Webb writes about how, when we see something, then step away from it, then look at it again, then try to deal with it in a reply, it takes us three times as long to process our email. It means we go into an automatic response mode--essentially, we're riding on rails--and don't think as clearly. It's funny to think about now, because I've fallen into this trap many times when I'm just clicking, clicking, clicking on emails.
"Touching once" matches up nicely with brain science. You won't try to tackle as many emails. With each one, you reply right then or archive it. In my experience, it means you literally cut about 3-4 hours out of your week and free up extra time.
The idea works for everything else in your office. When you receive a paper contract, stop and sign it right then, mail it off, and process it. (or wait and deal with it once later.) Suddenly, you saved time because you didn't look at the document again, process what it means, and flood your brain with additional information. Even meeting and talking to people can use the concept. Have the deep dive conversation right then, don't meet and greet, then meet again, then discuss, then go deeper.
With email, it's easier to track and see the results, though. I run a clean inbox most of the time. In some cases, I leave 10-15 messages in there because there's nothing I can do about them now anyway. They are in a holding pattern, and I don't really think about them. The concept works for messages that do need a response, but you are filing them away (literally and figuratively) because you don't want to take the time right at the moment.
Our brains don't like the approach of going back to the same data. When we try to multitask, we end up overloading the neurons. It's the same idea with organizing things in your office. When you always put a charging cable around a spool or in a drawer, you don't think about it. Leave them out on a desk or table, and they will become intertwined eventually. It's a mess. And, so are your thoughts.
Here's my challenge. Try touching an email only once when it arrives, as long as you have the answer. Spend 10-15 minutes processing email at regular intervals, but answer each one right then. Don't bother archiving them or labeling them if you can avoid that. Let me know if you try this technique and it works for you and how much time you saved and I'll do a follow-up post.