Do you spend more time than you'd like reading and responding to email? Most of us do. Email is a simple yet incredibly effective communication tool that can also be a real productivity killer. Which it is for you depends entirely on how you approach it. 

Here are some simple things you can do to get the email time suck under control. Taken together, they should drastically reduce the time you spend on email and may give you back an hour or two a day to spend on things that will meaningfully benefit you or your business. Just think what you'll be able to do with that extra time.

1. Consider the true importance of email.

Let me put this another way: Someday, many, many years from now, when your friends and colleagues are gathered at your memorial service, do you think they'll be saying what a great leader you were--because you always responded promptly to their emails? 

It may sound obvious, but I've found that thinking about it this way helps me get over the nagging guilt that besets me if I don't read and respond to emails in a timely manner, or even read non-urgent ones at all. It's taken me a long time to accept that this is not rudeness; it's using my limited time in a more effective way.

2. Don't let email fool you.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at some top executives' biggest gripes about the way their employees use email. Chief among them was that some employees seem to think email is the most important part of their jobs. 

I think what's really happening is that reading, composing, and answering email is both more fun and less taxing than, say, writing a report, calling someone into your office for a performance review, preparing a presentation, or any of the other items that make up the real meat of our work. 

So the next time you look up at the clock and discover that you've spent 90 minutes answering email when only meant to take a quick peek, ask yourself: Was this a subconscious way of avoiding some other task?

3. Choose items to answer, rather than sorting through everything.

Tony Hsieh famously has a system called "Yesterbox" wherein he always answers email the day after it arrived. While I would never dispute the brilliance of the Zappos.com founder--I just don't get it. If someone sends him a quick yes or no question, they have to wait 24 hours to for an answer? And if they're waiting on that yes or no to proceed with a project, for instance, they have to sit on their hands for that time? Efficient for him--inefficient for everyone who works with him. My guess is on important matters, people text him.

Some emails--from clients or business partners about current work, for example--really do need a rapid response. The thing is, that's a very small percentage of the total email anyone gets. So I took a cue from a clutter-management book I once read that advised, rather than go through an entire pile of stuff and decide whether to keep or toss each item, cherry pick the things you really want and abandon the rest. 

One of the first things I do every morning is scroll quickly through my email and respond to things that really deserve quick attention--messages from friends and family members, questions from clients, my research assistant, or ASJA colleagues and staff. I check for later urgent messages a few times throughout the day, just before taking a break, for instance. This way, messages that need it get a quick answer, and those that don't get dealt with in a big clump once or twice a week.

4. Pick your email times wisely.

I used to start my day by going through my email, and then turning to writing projects. Then a brain researcher explained why that's the wrong approach if I want to be at my best for the most important work I do. It turns out dealing with email wears out the decision-making part of your brain in a way that hampers creativity and insight. Instead, it's smarter to save email for the end of the day, when much of your energy is spent.

5. Let filters help you.

Since I'm a Gmail and Inbox user, I've had my email categorized in an increasingly intelligent way over the last couple of years without having to actually do anything to make it happen. Google uses its algorithms to automatically bundle some emails as "Promotion," "Social," "Updates," and more, leaving the higher-priority stuff in a less-cluttered inbox. Some people I know dislike categorized email but I find it really helps me focus on what's most important and ignore what isn't. It's much quicker to occasionally scroll through a list of all-advertising emails than it was to read through their subject lines, trying to find the important messages dispersed among them. And if, as sometimes happens, I don't get around to reading them at all, I know I won't have missed anything really important.

6. Use email efficiency tools.

My brilliant researcher, Paul Morana, frequently works with me on projects, responding to pitches and helping get information from sources. Because we work on many projects at once, mostly via email, some email threads were occasionally falling through the cracks. He did some research and suggested Streak as a way to make sure things stay on track. 

It's done that, and also helped me cut down my email-reading time, since Streak makes it very obvious which email threads I need to look at and when, and which he's handling on his own. While Streak works very well for us, something else might be a better fit for you. The point is that a little time invested in choosing and learning to use an email tool might quickly make up for itself in email time saved.

7. Use a timer.

Rather than just sitting down to your email and working through it till you're done, try setting aside a specific--and limited--block of time to deal with email. I myself am a fan of the Pomodoro Technique, so I tend to plan out my workday in 25-minute increments in any case. Whether or not you're a Pomodoran, the point is to decide ahead of time how much time you're going to spend on email and that you'll stop when that time is up. Knowing how much email you have to get through and that you only have so much time to do it can help you focus on what's important and spend less time fussing over what isn't. 

Which is the right approach to business and to life, as well as email.

Published on: Oct 22, 2015
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