Rule #1 – Check email twice a day

I cannot stress this enough: if you check email no more than twice a day, it will transform your productivity.

I stumbled across email batching at the start of my career, seventeen years ago. Since then, I’ve limited email to 30 minutes, once or twice a day. That’s about 10% of my work week.

By contrast, McKinsey estimates the average worker spends 28% of their week processing email. This means that over my career, I’ve gained three extra years to focus on being productive. Insane, right?

But wait, there’s more.

Email doesn’t just steal time. It also steals attention.

Deep work requires long periods of focus, measured in hours not minutes. This is impossible if you check your messages every six minutes, like the average worker. Switching context is a productivity killer.

To get meaningful work done, you must treat your inbox like Pandora’s box – open it under controlled circumstances and as infrequently as possible.

How to check email twice a day

To start email batching, you must complete the following steps:

  1. Clear old emails, so you start from a clean slate.

  2. Schedule time to check your emails.

  3. Process each batch of emails efficiently using the four-D process: discard, delegate, do, and defer.

Let’s cover those in more detail:

1. Clear your old emails

Each time you process a batch of emails, you will empty your inbox. This won’t work if your inbox contains thousands of old emails. We need to clear the decks.

I’m assuming you don’t want to sort and file thousands of old emails, so just archive them all. Email search is powerful – you can find them again if needed.

2. Schedule time for email

Next, schedule two recurring 30-minute appointments in your calendar – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

It may sound crazy to put email in your calendar. But if you don’t plan when to read email, you’ll check it all day.

Treat these appointments like any other meeting and move them if a clash occurs. Don’t be afraid to make people schedule meetings around your email time.

And remember – these slots are the only time you’re allowed to read email. Keep your inbox closed at all other times.

3. Process the batch (the four D’s)

Finally, when it’s email time, fire up your inbox.

Working from oldest to newest, read each email thread and take one of the following five actions:

The last step, “Defer”, is the reason email batching is so efficient. By avoiding real work when processing emails, you can fly through hundreds in half an hour.

This step also prevents your inbox from setting your priorities. By adding email-related tasks to your main to-do list, you can prioritise them accordingly.

Relax – nobody will care

I’ve been batching emails for seventeen years, across five companies, and nobody has noticed.

People don’t expect instant answers to emails. In an emergency, they will phone you.

Now, perhaps you’ve inadvertently trained your boss to expect instant responses. This is not a permanent problem, and you can resolve it in two ways.

The best approach is to be honest. Explain you’re trialling a new approach to email and will take longer to reply. Emphasise this is aiming to improve your productivity, and that you can be reached by phone if needed.

The second approach is to wean them off the expectation of quick responses. Over several weeks, take longer to respond to their emails. Eventually, you will be able to batch emails three times a day. Keep going until that’s down to twice a day.

Start today and don’t look back

Email batching has been the most important tool in my productivity journey.

By limiting how long I spend in my inbox, I’ve gained thousands of hours to spend on meaningful work. And the lack of distraction means those extra hours were put to good use.

Once you start batching, you’ll wonder how you survived without it.