Forget Inbox Zero: Here’s how to actually understand and optimize your email time every day

How much time do you spend a day on email? 30 minutes? An hour? Two? Take a second and write down a number that feels right to you. Ready? Ok. Here’s the bad news. If you wrote less than 2 hours, you’re most likely kidding yourself.

According to a recent study by Adobe, workers spend on average 2.5 hours a day dealing with their inbox. In our own study of 225 million hours of work time, we found that 76% of our days are devoted to either actively using or multitasking with communication tools.

While email is one of the most enduring workplace tools, few people see their inbox time as very productive. To cope, we fall into one of two camps. Either spending all day sucked into the “fake” productivity of chasing Inbox Zero. Or, giving up and letting our inboxes grow out-of-control like a neglected garden.

Neither option is good for your productivity (or sanity!) But email isn’t going anywhere. And without a solid understanding of how email impacts your workday, you’ll never be able to break free from its hold on you.

So how can you understand and fix your bad email habits and stop chasing Inbox Zero?

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The Problem: ⅔ of workers have no idea how much time they spend on email

Inbox Zero - No idea

Pretty much everyone can agree we all spend too much time in our inboxes. And if current trends continue, that time is only going to keep increasing.

According to research from Babson College and Wharton, time spent on communication and collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more over the past two decades. Even worse, they discovered that most employees spend close to 80% of their day responding to emails, in meetings, or on the phone.

No one does their best work if they only have 20% of their day to focus on it. Which is why understanding and optimizing your time spent on email is one of the easiest ways to win back time and focus during the workday.

“Understanding and optimizing your time spent on email is one of the easiest ways to win back time and focus during the workday.” Click To Tweet

That’s the good news. Now here’s the bad.

We have no idea how much email is taking over our days and our attention.

A recent study from AffinityLive found that only 33% of workers say they regularly track their time spent on emails (with 40% saying they’ve never tracked it).

Yet sticking our head in the sand about email time can have serious negative consequences. As research from UC Irvine’s Gloria Mark and colleagues found:

“When an individual spends more time on email during the workday, it is significantly related to lower assessed productivity and higher stress.”

Left unchecked and unmonitored, email will take over our workday. So what do we do?

The solution: Understand how much time you actually spend on email (and optimize it)

Understanding how much time we actually spend on email could be just the wake-up call we need. But here’s where things get tricky. It’s too easy to fall into the reductive ranting of “email is terrible! Down with email!”

Yet, email isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s how we use it that matters.

When we surveyed more than 500 RescueTime users, we found that the people who feel the most in control of how they spend their days all use email the same way:

  1. Spend less overall time on email and IM
  2. Keep their inboxes closed until scheduled checks
  3. Talk to colleagues about expectations on response time

Building these good email habits takes time. And the first step is understanding and monitoring how you currently use your inbox during the day.

Let’s run through a quick example of how to figure out how your email time is impacting your day using RescueTime.

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To start, you’ll want to navigate to your Categories report.

(In the example images, I’ve switched by date range to see a full month of data to uncover larger trends over time. However, if you’re a new user, you can look at your data on a daily or even weekly basis.)

Category_report

Next, click on the Communication and Scheduling report to just see your time spent on communication tools. Here, you’ll get insights like:

  • Total time spent on email
  • Which communication tools you use the most
  • The percentage of your total time spent on communications
  • If your communication time is mostly inside/outside working hours

Communication_time_total

This is a good opportunity to not only check your email time but also your overall time spent on collaboration. Are there other tools here taking up serious chunks of your day?

This is a good start, but we can go deeper. First, I’m going to click on Gmail to see just my time spent on email and then check my Time Of Day report to look at daily trends.

Email_time_by_time_of_day

Here, I can start to get a picture of how email impacts my day. According to this report, I usually start checking email by 8 am and don’t stop until after 7 pm with the bulk of it happening between 1-3 pm.

I can also look at how my email usage is trending over time in the Trending report.

Email_trends

This is a good way to test whether your email time is getting out of hand (and to track your progress once you’ve made changes).

Lastly, I’m going to see if I’m spending more time on email on specific days. Using the By Day report while still looking at my Gmail time, I can see that there are pretty clear spikes of email time mid-week.

Optimize your time spent on email with these 3 changes

Inbox Zero - Do more

Now that you have a clear picture of how email impacts your workday, you can start to change your habits.

Rather than just trying to limit your time, the goal is to fit email into your workday at the right times so you can be informed and available without letting communication take over.

1. Set daily goals to minimize overall email time

There are lots of reasons you might want to cut down your overall email time. Not the least of which is that, as researchers have discovered, “the more time on email, the more opportunities there are for diversions within the email client.

The more time you spend in your inbox, the more likely you are to get distracted. Learn how to optimize your email time every day. Click To Tweet

In other words, email itself isn’t the only distraction. It’s all the things that happen once you’re in your inbox. Unfortunately, as we’ve written in the past, most workers can’t go more than 6 minutes without checking their inbox!

A great way to get a handle on your inbox time is with RescueTime Goals and Alerts. Goals let you track specific behaviors while Alerts give you real-time notifications when you hit or miss your goals.

For example, I can set a Goal and Alert to tell me if I’ve spent more than half an hour on emails in the morning.

Change RescueTime goal to morning

This way I can quickly get feedback and change my behavior if I’m getting sucked into emails early in the day.

Goals are also great for tracking long-term progress. By looking at your Goals report on a monthly basis, you can see how you’ve done and how your usage is trending over time.

RescueTime Monthly goals view

2. Understand your daily “email curve”

One of the phenomena Gloria Mark and her colleagues discovered in their studies on email time was that “…the higher employees’ job demands are, the more time they spend on email and the more often they check email.”

For many people, one of the hardest questions to answer is “how much time should I spend in my inbox?”

While some days it might feel like the answer is all day. Understanding your threshold for getting value out of email is a powerful way to optimize your email time without going overboard.

Deep Work author Cal Newport calls this your email curve:

Email-productivity-Cal-Newport

At one end, spend no time on email equals an OK level of productivity. As you spend more time on email, you become more productive (thanks to the productivity boosts from more information and collaboration).

But once you cross a certain threshold more email usage drops our productivity to a point where nothing gets done.

Finding your personal threshold isn’t easy. But one way I like to do this is by looking at my RescueTime Category report by Time Of Day.

Daily Patterns Overview

As a writer, my most productive time is spent on Design and Composition tools. And seeing that usage against my communication time gives me a good idea of when I cross my email threshold (usually around 2 pm where my time switches from mostly writing to mostly email for the rest of the afternoon).

3. Schedule email time for when your energy levels are naturally lower

Working through your emails won’t always take the same effort as other work (like writing, designing, or coding). So why spend your most productive hours on email?

When it comes to fitting email into your daily schedule, it’s a good idea to try and set aside time when your energy levels are naturally lower. As we wrote in our guide on How to optimize your daily schedule for energy, motivation, and focus, we all go through cycles of motivation throughout the day.

There’s our Circadian Rhythm—a 24-hour internal clock running in the background of your brain that cycles between alertness and sleepiness. As well as Ultradian Rhythms—90-120 minute sessions of alertness that our mind cycles through before needing a break.

Once you understand when your mind is naturally low in energy, you can schedule low-impact tasks like email during that time.

RescueTime is a great resource for this as well. By looking at your Daily Productivity Report By Month, you can see how your productivity fluctuates throughout the day and when you should schedule your email time.

Daily patterns - Productivity

(For me, it’s in the later afternoon or right around noon).


There’s no denying that email is an amazing workplace tool. But it’s also one that can quickly become overwhelming if not paid attention to.

According to one report by market research firm, The Radicati Group, by the end of this year, the number of emails sent and received will climb to 246 billion per day (with an average of 125 per person, per day).

But when you truly understand the time you spend on email, you can take control of your inbox, instead of letting it take control of you.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

6 comments

  1. LOVE this article. Thank you for the permission to not be stressed by the goal of inbox zero. As much as people say it is possible, I just don’t see it happening (although I do have some better tools now help manage e-mails). I also loved the step-by-step to seeing valuable reports in Rescuetime, and how to set goals. I’ve been using Rescuetime for about 4 months now, so I feel like now is a good time to look at those reports, habits, and see what goals are reasonable for me to implement. Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Anita! Let me know how it goes working through your RescueTime reports!

  2. Jory,

    Your article is excellent. Thanks. While I do most of the things you mention, I have not formally tracked my time as you suggest. As a new Rescue time user, I plan to do that as well.

    My only quibble is the discounting of the Inbox Zero strategy: “… spending all day sucked into the “fake” productivity of chasing Inbox Zero.”

    Actually, none of your advice is incompatible with this method, and in fact; each of the suggestions is an essential part of an effective email strategy.

    Here’s my experience of using Inbox Zero for nearly 20 years. Over that time I have had an email volume of roughly 150 – 200 messages per day, which I believe is now getting to be the norm.

    First, I think that many people assume the “zero” strategy means something that it does not. Perhaps that one is required to respond to every message that shows up? Of course not – you get to decide! Alternatively, that you should respond immediately when a message shows up to keep at zero at all times? No – batching as you have described is critical for all the reasons you mention.

    The “zero” is just a metric to show progress – a gamification, if you will that makes email more efficient and enjoyable. Also, one does not need to “get to zero” every day to make this work. You can pick your own “zero” timeline. Maybe it works better for you to find just the important messages for the day and then wait until later, perhaps even the end of the week, to sort out the rest.

    Using Inbox Zero, I manage my email more efficiently, with less stress, and with the guarantee that I will not miss messages that need my attention. Period.

    The core practice is to look at every email that comes in (in batches, of course) and read just enough to figure out what you need to do with it. Deleting and filing are done immediately. For the rest, YOU decide which messages do and do not require further action on your part. For those, use the 2-minute rule to do quick replies or tasks, and DEFER THE REST to later. These “to do” messages need to be kept segregated from the new ones so that you don’t get confused. There are options for this storage, out of and some actually “in” the inbox.

    This method seems like common sense – and very similar to the old advice about how to manage a “real” paper inbox. Handle each piece of paper once. Don’t put something back after you have picked it up. Do what you can immediately, and put the rest into a todo system so that you can prioritize among all your tasks.

    Thanks for letting me share my perspective. The way most people manage email is such a source of stress and loss of overall productivity that I believe we have to have conversations about all the options that may help.

    1. This is great Susan! I LOVE your methodology, especially the 2-minute rule and committing to only “touching” each email once. However, I find it hard to stick with these strategies on a consistent basis. And unfortunately, I’m not the only one.

      As our own (and outside) research has shown, few people have the discipline to work through their inbox so methodically. Instead, email is an ever-present part of their day that constantly pulls at their attention. My main point in this post (which I think you definitely get!) is simply that without an understanding of how your email time is impacting not just your overall time, but also your attention and ability to focus, you’ll never really be able to optimize it.

      Now it’s time to write about some more strategies for getting through your inbox successfully!

  3. I am curious about your baseline premise about “the ‘fake’ productivity of chasing Inbox Zero.” Can you explain your thoughts on this. I happen to think that inbox zero is a great thing when tied to a GTD approach. Thanks.

    1. Hey Dan! I agree that when you approach your inbox in a methodical way such as GTD (and can stick with those methods consistently) it’s a powerful tool. Unfortunately, not many people are able to stick with this on a long-term basis. When most knowledge workers can’t go 6 minutes without checking their inbox or IM I think it’s safe to say we have a problem. The constant chasing, checking, and context switching is the real issue here, which is why I think it’s so important for people to understand just how much time they’re spending in their inbox to help them commit to better practices in the future.

      Check out our research on communication overload if you’re interested in this kind of data!

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