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Inbox insanity: How organizing email can increase productivity

By creating an organizational system for your inbox, you can increase your productivity and ability to focus. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum

FARGO — On average, employees spend 7.4 hours per weekday plugged into email, according to a 2016 Adobe Email Survey. That's 37 hours per workweek.

But why?

"Some of it is the way things have changed and evolved with technology," says Bethany Berkeley Gartin, a performance consultant at Dale Carnegie Training in Fargo. "It's difficult to disconnect."

In fact, Adobe notes that people are so addicted to email that they feel the need to detox. The survey found that 45 percent of people reported a "self-imposed email detox, a break from checking email."

It's no surprise the practice made a positive impact: 37 and 34 percent of people reported feeling liberated and relaxed, respectively.

The effects of being constantly connected are undeniable. "The amount of communication we receive on a daily basis — not just from email — creates a lot of stress or anxiety," Berkeley Gartin says. "We can't be super productive if we're stressed and overwhelmed."

Berkeley Gartin has found there are advantages in creating systems of organization and best practices for productivity surrounding email.

Creating a system

Taking control of email starts with a plan. Without a system in place, it's easy to get distracted by the hundreds of emails that flood your inbox each day.

"Sometimes the expectation is that we respond so quickly because that's what we're all used to," Berkeley Gartin says. "You feel this pressure and — in some cases — anxiety to respond to emails as soon as you get them."

But that shouldn't be the case. And for Berkeley Gartin, it no longer is. The productivity consultant is intentional in how she structures her day.

"The first hour of the day is dedicated just for responding to email," she says. When the time is up, she moves on to her first task of the day, according to a list created the day before.

"Until that task is completed — unless there is an urgent project I know I need to be able to respond to — I will not check my email," she says. "When that task is completed, I will go back to emails for about 20 minutes and then I'll move onto the next task."

The performance consultant continues the pattern throughout her day. Before leaving work, Berkeley Gartin takes time to create another task list for the following day, so the next morning can again be dedicated to responding to emails.

In certain cases, projects require the use of email. For that reason, folder organization is key. Berkeley Gartin suggests creating specific folders for projects or subjects.

"As soon as I see the email come through, I manually drag it to the folder," she says. "I don't mark it as read so when it goes into its folder I can see the number of unread emails depending on each subject or project that I've created."

While her personal email inbox is less chaotic, Berkeley Gartin also assigns folders in that inbox for travel, business, finance or other common subjects. She also auto-forwards personal emails of importance to her work email so as not to miss something at work. Knowing that, she can focus on work at work without feeling the need to check personal email.

A personalized method

Though she has mastered a system of her own, Berkeley Gartin recognizes there are many best practices that exist.

"It's important to say that everybody's job is different and everyone has a different personality and different style," she says. "Everybody's brain works differently so my organizational method might drive someone else crazy."

Finding that perfect system requires patience and dedication. "I think it's really just taking the time to find what works best for you," Berkeley Gartin says. "Start somewhere and modify it from there."

When it comes down to it, people also need to take time to disconnect from email all together. While it might be tempting to check email outside of work or even on vacation, doing so creates a distraction and voids the ability to really focus on the rest of life's priorities.

"Ask yourself in those situations, 'What's the worst that can happen?' The world will not crumble," Berkeley Gartin says. "I think when we really get down to it — with all the inundation with the variety of technologies — we have to soak up the moments that matter."

Apps to try

Berkeley Gartin has found that in taking time to clean up her inbox, her productivity has soared. Part of that task requires marking some email as spam or unsubscribing from newsletters and promotional content.

Unroll.me is a free system that helps streamline the process.

"It creates a pretty seamless and quick way to unsubscribe from numerous newsletters," Berkeley Gartin says.

By entering their email address, users can link to the app, which finds various email subscriptions. Users can keep them, unsubscribe or roll them into one email they receive daily, called a "rollup."

Both Focus and Isolator are productivity apps.

"If you're trying to focus on a certain task, it will blur other windows so you're just looking at what you're supposed to be in that moment," Berkeley Gartin says. "And it will turn off email notifications during that time."

The apps can be especially helpful while focusing on projects, watching webinars or participating in conference calls.

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