The ONE Question, Email Habits, and Boosting Your Productivity for Good
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The ONE Question, Email Habits, and Boosting Your Productivity for Good

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I recently read a book called The ONE Thing by Gary Keller. The basic idea behind the book is to simplify your life and focus all your effort towards goals that make other things unnecessary or easier.

In my opinion, the most important lesson of the book is something that the author introduces as a focusing question. It goes like this:

What’s the ONE thing I can do that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

You can apply this question to various parts of your life, like your spiritual well-being or your physical health. But in this case, let’s apply the question to one of the most important parts of our daily lives: work.

There are many ways to apply this question to your workday, but if there is one particular part of work that people are struggling with more and more, it’s handling their email effectively.

It’s not that surprising when you learn the stats: Radicati Group estimated that the amount of daily emails (both sent and received) is currently 205 billion.

Things aren’t going to slow down in the coming years, either. According to their prediction, the daily email volume is going to break the 246 billon mark by 2019.

Even if we only get a fraction of all the emails in the world, we still have to be very strategic on how to manage our inbox. If not, then this particular aspect of work will completely hijack our workday and we’ll lose control of it.

How One Habit can Be a Game Changer

When you apply the ONE Question to your current work habits, it should sound like this:

“What’s the ONE thing I can do to improve the productivity of my workday?”

When I asked myself this question, I noticed that the most important aspect that made a big difference was my email checking habit. To be more precise, it was my habit of opening my email first thing in the morning.

Now, my answer may sound too simple or insignificant, but when you dig deeper into it, you start to see how changing this habit could potentially change your day:

  • Increase your ability to make progress on your most important projects
  • Feel a sense of accomplishment from making that progress
  • Become the driver of your workday, not a passenger for other people
  • Make faster progress on your task list

For many people, an email checking habit is the complete opposite.

The first thing they do when they hit the office is open their email client. Then, before they know it, they get sucked into commitments set by others.

By the time they reach their lunch break, they can feel the tension and frustration rising. They haven’t made any progress on their well-prepared task list simply because they happened to access their inbox before doing any work.

Here’s the deal: for some, because of their job description, accessing their inbox on a near-constant basis is a necessity. Still, if you have no obligation to be available all the time, I suggest taking advantage of this approach and seeing how it affects your overall productivity.

How to Put All This into Action

So now you know the one change you could make to your workday and what effects it could have. In the next few steps, I’ll show you how to put this theory into action.

1. Ask the ONE Question.

In my case, I acknowledged that opening my email first thing in the morning was a productivity killer.

You may come up with a different answer than me and that’s totally fine. What matters is that you identify the most important thing eating up your work time, then make the necessary adjustments to change the situation.

2. Take your time.

Am I asking you to postpone checking your email indefinitely? Not at all. All I’m asking is that you postpone it just a little bit, by at least one hour.

If you start working at 9 am, perhaps you could decide to open your inbox by 10 am at the earliest. Or, like in my case, I don’t open my inbox until noon.

If the situation permits, you can always stretch this email-free time at both ends by checking your email later, by starting working earlier, or by combining these two factors together.

For example, you could decide to start working earlier, at 8:30 am, and then postpone opening your inbox till 10:30 am. This way you have a solid 2-hour block of email-free time which you can use specifically on the most important tasks of your day.

In my case, my important tasks are things like reading, meditating, and writing. I have identified these as my most important tasks because they invest into my future and improve my well-being.

3. Train others.

If you are a solopreneur, putting all this advice into practice is much simpler for you than for someone who works in a cubicle.

But no matter what environment you currently work in, it’s still important to let others know of your new email habit in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts and wrongful expectations.

You could set a permanent vacation responder telling others when you will open your inbox. Or, if you work in a cubicle, you could let your colleagues and/or boss know that you don’t open your inbox until a set time.

4. Be flexible.

It’s worth understanding that, no matter if you want to or not, there are times when you do have to check your inbox before anything else.

If you’re getting back to work from vacation, it’s a good idea to do some catching up before you start working. This way, you are up-to-date on the latest developments in your workplace.

Or, perhaps, in order to complete something important, you need a particular piece of information which is stored in your email. Otherwise you can’t make progress on this important task.

Opening your inbox even during your inbox-free hours is sometimes necessary. However, if these things stay as exceptions to the rule, then there’s nothing wrong with that.

5. Don’t underestimate the change process.

The last piece of information I can give you is this: expect to face some resistance towards your new email habit. Not necessarily from the people around you, but from yourself.

Forming a new habit takes time and patience.

Research shows that it takes approximately 66 days for participants to become accustomed to a change. Even this figure is just an average and the actual number of days depends of the person and the habit being changed.

So what are some potential ways to remove the temptation of checking your email? Consider these:

  • Remove all the triggers. Turn off notifications on your email client and on your smartphone, too. In fact, if possible, stop synching emails to your phone at all.
  • Make it a reward. Opening an email becomes so much more pleasurable when you allow yourself to. I always feel much more excited when the clock hits the 12 pm mark and I allow myself to access my inbox. [Learn more about the power of rewards]
  • Understand what’s at stake. If you tend to open your email at the start of the day, make sure to understand what you lose in that process: your ability to make progress on your most important tasks, your “me time” in exchange for the commitments of others, and the satisfaction of marking things off your task list.
  • Make expectations empty. Use tools like Batched Inbox to schedule the delivery of your emails. This way, you don’t have any messages in your inbox waiting for you even if you check it too early.

Would You Like to Give Your Email Productivity a Boost?

No, I’m not giving you arbitrary figures about how much your productivity will improve. Instead, I’m willing to say that if you follow the advice I give in this report, your workday will become more effective.

This report consists of tools (like Batched Inbox), best practices, and habits that are sure to improve your email productivity. Download the report here.

About the Author

Timo is a blogger, author, and speaker who helps work-at-home professionals get stuff done fast so that they have time for living.

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