If you’ve ever experienced flow, a state of consciousness described by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you probably have never forgotten it – after all, you were completely absorbed in what you were doing, you were doing it well and you were being extremely productive. According to Csikszentmihalyi, people who experience flow feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”

Flow is a very positive thing. We do our best work (and play) when we are experiencing it.

Alas, even for those of us for whom email is profession (and a passion), dealing with it can be a flow killer. There is a lot of it. It streams into our inboxes at an unrelenting pace. And managing it takes up way too much of our time. According to the Huffington Post, which reported on a survey conducted by Adobe, respondents said they spend an average of 6.3 hours every day processing email (both work-related and personal).

All that email processing has a profound effect on our productivity.

“Even checking your e-mail for a minute is a surefire way to open up all the different drawers of your brain and immediately distract your mind with a zillion other issues,” writes Julie Morgenstern, in her book Never Check E-Mail in the Morning. “Once that happens, prolonged concentration on anything, critical or not, is nearly impossible.”

While you can debate the pros and cons of avoiding email early in the day, science backs up what Morgenstern has to say about how interruptions can affect concentration.

“Research shows that when you’re interrupted from a task (by anything, not just email), the task will be resumed, on average, 23 minutes and 15 seconds later,” writes Jayson DeMers, in Forbes. “While this seems a high number for simply checking your email, there’s no doubt that interrupting a task leads to a loss of concentration and a decline in productivity levels.”

While reading, writing and triaging work-related email is critical to our jobs, it can also take valuable time away from our core responsibilities. So, unlike most of our posts, which deal with the opportunities and challenges associated with creating and sending emails that engage and influence consumers, this one is going to take a different perspective. It is focused on helping you better manage your inbox, so you can spend more time in the flow, creating engaging messages destined for your outbox.

6 inbox management tips

Tip One: Be aware of (and resist) FOMO

According to Mike Schmitz, writing in Asian Efficiency, there’s a very simple reason most of us are tempted to constantly monitor our inboxes – it’s “fear of missing out” aka FOMO.

“People are scared of what could be happening while they’re not looking,” he writes. “You need to be OK with not knowing what’s going on in your inbox every moment of every day. Responding to email notifications instantly is almost as bad as constant inbox monitoring. Usually people do this because they’re afraid that it might be something important (but it usually isn’t).”

(FOMO is really a thing. It was recognized as a word by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 and a significant amount of research has been conducted on it, particularly as it relates to the use of social media. This Time article provides a great FOMO primer.)

Are you ok with “not knowing what’s going on in your inbox every moment of day?” Not quite there yet? Well, one step at a time.

Tip Two: Turn off notifications

Email notifications ensure we don’t miss anything that hits our inbox (that’s good). But
they also ensure that we don’t attain maximum flow with regard to whatever we are working on when those notifications pop (not good at all). The solution to that is simple. Turn them off. (Uh, oh – FOMO trigger!)

“Resist the temptation to receive notifications on your desktop and mobile devices,” writes Demers. “If you still fear missing a critical email, feel free to set up an autoresponder re-directing all urgent matters to your phone.”

His suggestion is seconded by Kevin Kruse, also writing in Forbes: “Email is not intended to be an urgent form of communication, so getting email notifications is a sin. Notifications interrupt your concentration, your work sprints, and your ability to be present and mindful during meetings and conversation.”

Tip Three: Check email only at specific times of day

While turning off notifications may work for some, it may be necessary for other members of today’s hyper-connected workforce to turn email off completely, except for several set times a day, to ensure it does not take you out of your flow. (Does the thought of doing that send chills down your spine? If so, rest assured that you are not alone.)

As frightening as it may be, it’s an integral component of another of Kruse’s suggestions, which he calls “The 321Zero System.” It’s a regimen that not only helps you head off email-associated distractions but has the added benefit of helping you clear your inbox (a state he and other workplace-productivity gurus refer to as “inbox zero”). The system has three steps:

1. Schedule three times a day to process your email (morning, noon, night).
2. Set the timer on your phone for 21 minutes.
3. Try to get to inbox zero in that time.

“Make a game out of it,” Kruse suggests. “Twenty-one minutes is intentionally not enough time, but it will keep you focused, ensure that your responses are short, and that you don’t start clicking links out into the wonderful world of internet distractions.”

Jacqueline Whitmore, writing for Entrepreneur, seconds the importance on setting aside specific times during the day to focus on email: “Don’t leave your email program open all day long,” she writes. “Instead, schedule specific blocks of time throughout the day for checking your email.”

If you are concerned your senders might expect a response more quickly than your new email schedule will allow, Whitmore suggests emulating the auto-response message that Four-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferris uses: “Due to high workload, I am currently checking and responding to e-mail twice daily at 12:00pm ET [or your time zone] and 4:00pm ET. If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12:00pm or 4:00pm, please contact me via phone at 555-555-5555.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be in state of flow when you are actively engaged with managing your email, and Whitmore shares a few suggestions to make that happen: “While you are focusing on email, you might even try marking your calendar and setting your availability to ‘busy.’ If necessary, turn off your cellphone and shut your office door to prevent interruptions by family members (if you work from home) or employees.”

Tip Four: Take immediate action

It is important to take some kind of action as soon as you can on the emails you receive. This will help you get through your inbox quickly and get back to your other responsibilities (and back into your state of flow).

“Making quick decisions and pursuing immediate action will help keep your email inbox under control,” Whitmore writes. “The idea is to not delay until tomorrow what can be accomplished right away,”

Kruse suggests that every email be approached with a process he calls “the four Ds.” When you open a message, ask yourself:

  • Can I Delete this email? If “yes,” go ahead (or archive it or file it).
  • Can I Delegate this to someone else? If yes, immediately forward the message.
  • Can I Do it in less than five minutes? If you can take care of an email in less than five minutes, you should do it right away. Then delete, archive or file it.
  • Can I Defer it? The remaining choice will be an email that you have to personally respond to, but it will take longer than five minutes. In this case you will want to immediately schedule time on your calendar to respond to it.

Tip Five: Be a ruthless unsubscriber

Email newsletters hold a special place in the hearts of many email marketers, because we know they how effective they can be for building engagement and driving conversions. So, chances are that you have subscribed to countless newsletters (for purely professional reasons, of course), and that processing them takes a large percentage of your inbox-management time.

In the interest of maximizing your flow, perhaps it’s a good idea to take a close look at just how many of those you really need to receive and process on a regular basis.

“Newsletters and advertisements can overwhelm your inbox and bury important messages,” Whitmore writes. “Clean out the clutter. Unsubscribe from receiving messages from specific senders if you no longer want to receive their missives or don’t have the time to read them.”

Not ready to pull the plug on them completely? Kruse has a suggestion for handling that: “If you really want those newsletters, use a secondary email address for them, and schedule time off-hours to read them all at once.”

Tip Six: Send less email

This one is so simple and elegant that we couldn’t resist sharing it: “If you want to receive less email, send less email.”

That’s the number-one suggestion on LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner’s list of ways of “seven ways to manage email so it doesn’t manage you.”

Of course, the fact that Weiner’s first suggestion was followed by six additional tips is evidence that staying on top of your inbox requires more than simply ramping down the numbers of messages you send (so, check out the rest of his suggestions and/or our other tips above).

May the flow be with you!