The 1 Time Thief You Can’t Ignore. – inc.com post

We are all guilty of this one.

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By: David Finkel Author, ‘The Freedom Formula: How to Succeed in Business Without Sacrificing Your Family, Health, or Life.


Email has become both the biggest boon and bane to our existence. It allows us to pass along timely information to an interested audience, and it also suffocates us with endless sales pitches and phishing schemes. Even if we only take 30 seconds to deal with every email we get each day (which equates to about 70, on average), that’s still a half an hour we lose each day. And that’s not to mention the amount of time we spend on emails that we need to address. With these subject line strategies, we can improve our electronic lives in our own corners of the world.

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When it comes to time management and productivity it all boils down to finding and eliminating your time thieves. Once you are able to identify the low value tasks that take up the bulk of your time, you will find yourself with more time to focus on the big picture tasks that fuel growth in your business. 

The Biggest Culprit

As you drill down into the daily operations of your organization, you’ll hunt and kill a multitude of time thieves, but one thief that stands out above the rest is low-value email. Many of us are drowning in email, never realizing that the very way we use it has made it much harder to get it back under control. I have spoken with thousands of business leaders asking the question: “What’s the single greatest interruption that kills your productivity?” The overwhelming answer, by a three-to-one ratio, was email. 

It may be promotional junk mail disguised as something more important, or perhaps you are being cc’d on something that requires no direct action or response from you because the people sending are simply including you, their boss, in the thread to cover themselves–yet you still take half a minute to scan through its contents. 

Regardless, it’s not those few seconds that cost you, it’s the multiple minutes you lose as you try to regain focus on your original task. Now multiply that by the dozens or hundreds of emails that flood your inbox each day, and it adds up to precious hours when you could have been doing something more productive.

How We Handle Email 

In my company Maui Mastermind, we began experimenting with ways to reduce the attentional load on each other by being smarter with email subject lines. We settled on a numerical method of telegraphing the importance of an email’s contents that we now call the 1-2-3 System. Here’s how it works:

1 = Time sensitive and important–read and take action ASAP.

2 = Action required–read and take noted action within a reasonable time frame

3 = FYI. No action required. Scan for content when convenient.

We also make subject lines easier to scan and later search by using clear, keyword-rich information that previews the email. For example, this might look like:

2: Notes from Dalloway Mtg Feb 24 

2 Mark; 3 Emily: Follow up to Stetson Project Review call April 12

When appropriate, we also beef up the subject line when we forward or reply. We’ve found that the more information we can include at the top, the more time it saves the recipient.

Implementing these small changes has enhanced the atmosphere of my company and would likely do the same for you. Team retention is greatly improved, and my team members are calmer and happier. It’s common sense. Why should someone feel they must check work messages all the time? And yet people read through hundreds of messages for fear of missing out on the one life-and-death piece of information. Yes, emergencies happen. We might have a company-wide system crash, for example. But that doesn’t mean that Larry, my head of IT, needs to be constantly monitoring his smartphone for something that might occur twice a year at most. If it’s that serious, our team will just call him on his cell phone.

Once you are able to take control of your inbox and the way that information comes in, you are free to focus on the things that really matter. And chances are…it’s not something in your inbox.

(The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.)


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