So far in this month’s series on productivity, we’ve looked at tools to increase efficiency and examined the research behind multitasking. Today, we’re focusing on something we all struggle with…the Inbox.

Always available, our email Inbox haunts us with its increasing number of unread messages. Some really important; others spam and special offers from any store we’ve ever walked into. So, how can your Inbox improve your productivity? Some would argue, by closing it.

Managed effectively, email is a helpful means of communication. Improperly managed and you’ll realize that you’ve started and ended your day in a reactive state, responding to messages that have distracted you from the work you needed to complete. In fact, studies indicate that email is one of the primary distractions in the workplace – and one of the most costly at some $650 billion annually.

When you switch from working on a task to checking an email, it can take up to 20 minutes to reorient your focus on the task at-hand. Imagine you’re distracted by email even 10 times a day and you can start to see why it seems there aren’t enough hours in the day to get your work done.

But, there are practical and easy habits you can practice to take control of your productivity:

  • Don’t treat every email as an emergency. Let’s face it, email is convenient. But, if your house is on fire, do you email the fire department? No, you call them. We’ve trained ourselves to use work email incorrectly, blending both priority and non-priority requests, ultimately creating a “boy who cried wolf” situation. Believe it or not, you have control over how others communicate with you. If you respond instantly to every email sent your way, you train the sender to expect that you will always respond instantly. At first, doing so can seem like you’ve mastered the secrets to a good relationship and you’re deemed a rockstar. But, unless your job is to wait and watch for emails so you can respond instantly, it’s a hard gig to maintain. Instead, learn to identify which requests are urgent (and probably should have been communicated in-person or over-the-phone) and which are just reminders of something you need to add to your to-do list and schedule to complete at the appropriate time.
  • Create your to-do list before checking email in the morning. What did you not finish from the day before that you need to hit hard this morning? What is due today that can’t be pushed out? Once you’ve mapped out your tasks for the day, then check email, looking for only those assignments that have become a last-minute priority. If it appears you need to prioritize a new emergency over a planned task, then discuss the flexibility of your previous deliverables with whomever you owe them.
  • Schedule times to check email. Some productivity consultants suggest specific times of the day such as 8:30am, noon and 4:30pm. I’ve also seen a suggestion that encourages focusing on a project for a solid 50 minutes and then taking a mental break for 10 minutes, during which you could check your email. Maybe this is a better starting point if you’re a “first responder.” Regardless of the best times for your work flow, the point is to take control of when you allow email to disrupt your focus.

And finally, close your email, already. This is perhaps the simplest habit to start, and probably the most productive. Just as keeping a clean desk helps your brain to focus, closing your email window and turning off pop-up alerts eliminates at least one workplace distraction. As for the co-worker loudly retelling stories from the weekend in the cubicle next to you? Headphones. Good, soundproof headphones. And maybe this Spotify station.