Productivity Hack: Batching your Emails

But the one thing that’s worked really well for me is to just have two times of the day that I’m batching emails.

This week I want to share the idea of ‘batching’ as it relates to productivity at work, especially when applied to emails. I’m someone who’s borderline obsessed with productivity and constant incremental improvements (kaizen) to my work process. I want to get more done in less time, and still have energy left at the end of the day to balance work with life, and maintain my health.

You can find lots of info and blogs out there on productivity (including this one, today). But did you know that a huge amount of it originates from a single source? One of the undisputed masters of productivity and work-life balance is Tim Ferriss – author of the 4-Hour Work Week, and host of the Tim Ferriss Show.

Although batching is something we all do to one extent or another, the first person I saw codify and apply it to office work is Tim Ferriss. So, what is batching, how does Tim use it, and how can it help you?

What is Batching?

As the name perhaps implies, batching is the grouping together of tasks with the objective of doing them all at once. Bakers bake a batch of bread, not a single loaf, factories produce a batch of thousands of items in a single run before resetting the machinery, and productive workers batch all their calls, emails, meetings, and creative time into separate batches as well.

This reduces “switching costs” (the amount of time it takes to re-focus on a task after you’ve been distracted away from it) and prevents us from being reactive all day. How many times have you sat down to resume your actual job, only to have your train of thought broken by an email or IM notification three minutes later? You read it, send a quick response, and try get back to work, but then you remember further info that might benefit the original sender to you go look up a link. While you’re browsing, that Twitter bookmark calls to you from the top bar and now you’re scrolling for no particular reason. It happens. A lot! But a lot less when you adopt batching.

Tim Ferriss’ email batching

Tim wrote about how he started to only check emails at particular times of the day, and get them all done within a set time-frame. For the rest of the day, emails didn’t happen as far as he was concerned. Then he’d increase this batching to only certain days of the week, until eventually he was only checking email once per week total!

He was helped in this by some automated response systems that explained how he would only check emails periodically, but if your query related to X, then the answer was Y, or if requesting a speaking engagement, he currently wasn’t taking any, etc.

He also empowered his staff to handle any customer service disputes up to a value of $100 without checking for his permission. Since 90% of disputes were for values worth less than $20, and he would previously have been emailed about every dispute only to usually say “yes, grant that”, this saved a huge amount of time for himself and his staff.

But what if I miss an important email?

There are two nuggets of wisdom to consider here.

You train others how to treat you

If you tell the key people that communicate with you that you’re adopting a new email-reduction approach, and will only be checking it once per day, they won’t expect instant replies. This also results in receiving less emails about trivial matters. They will also know that if there’s an actual urgent issue, that they should walk up to your desk, or phone you to get instant access.

Things are rarely that urgent

Things are rarely (depends on your profession, I understand that) so urgent that an email can’t wait a few hours. It’s not an urgent medium. Maybe some day you’ll miss first-come-first-served on a spare concert ticket or something, but what’s the value of that to you? A ticket might be worth €80. What’s it worth to you to have less distractions at work and get more work done more quickly every day?! The trade-off is a no-brainer in my opinion.

How I’ve adopted it

I’ve designed and redesigned many timetables for myself over the years. I think mostly they work at first, then the routine (any routine) kind of gets to you, and you switch things up a bit. I don’t think there’s one perfect timetable for anyone, let alone for everyone. But the one thing that’s worked really well for me is to just have two times of the day to check emails. In my situation I could actually get away with once, probably.

So at 10 am I’ll check email in a 30 minute window. All emails. Personal, work, other work, Facebook and Twitter messages, WhatsApp texts. I’ve 30 minutes to clear it, or postpone things. This includes checking links on newsletters, special deals, articles, etc. I limit my time so I can’t endlessly go down the rabbit hole. If there’s a long article I really want to read I’ll bookmark it for the evening.

Also in this time window I’ll usually send a message to someone I haven’t spoken to in a while. People I met at conferences, friends who live overseas, cousins, etc. That takes 5-10 minutes of the time usually. If there’s any time left over I’ll also try to get in a few mental exercises, memorising lists. I do this habit every day. This is how I can name you 50 States, 28 (soon to be 27?) EU countries + capitals, 32 Irish counties, all Bond movies (by year), and how to say “Cheers” in over 30 languages and counting. I really want to get email out of the way so I can get to this more fun mini-game before starting ‘work’ work.

I repeat this at 2pm. So my day has its communication time and its work time separated. It also means that any query to me should be answered in a half a working day or less, which is perfectly acceptable.

After dinner I have no rules about email or messages (Tim Ferriss would disapprove) but this has worked wonders for me. Outside of those two half hours, (before dinner), all notifications are off. The phone is set to Do Not Disturb (while allowing calls through, since I get very few and they’re usually somewhat important).

Bonus Tip: Gmail Snooze

productivity batching
Gmail’s new(ish) Snooze Button

Gmail now has a Snooze button for emails that allows you to send something in your inbox away and have it return unread at a set time. This is great if you want to clear the clutter and rush to inbox-zero, but without addressing an important issue yet, but not deleting or risking forgetting it either.

Bonus Bonus Tip: Pause your Inbox

You can also use the Boomerang plugin for Gmail to completely pause your Inbox for a time, so that if you need to work inside Gmail but don’t want to be distracted by new messages, they’ve got you covered. This plugin is also how your schedule an email to automatically send at a later time – something Gmail can’t do for some reason.

In Conclusion

Yeah, pretty much batch your emails into one or two times per day, max! You batch your laundry into a single load – why not email and texts? You can experiment with batching other things too, like cooking several meals for the week on Sunday night, or doing your bookkeeping/receipts every 2nd Monday morning. It all takes a little discipline and planning, but it can save huge amounts of time and keep you focused on your real work.

I hope you found this useful. Please share some of your favourite productivity hacks in the comments, or just say hi and let us know if you’re going to/already use this one. If you’d like to read my recent blog post on combating Procrastination, click here.

If you’d like to set up a free call to talk about how I can help double productivity for you or your team, please get in touch. I’m happy to chat for 20 minutes and offer some quick wins at no charge.

Until next time…

PS As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I’ve linked the book “4-Hour Work Week” above. It costs you no extra to buy through the link, but I get a small percentage as a referral bonus.

Yin and Yang of Business

Yin and yang is work-life balance. Run your conclusions by other people. Yin and yang is realising that great minds think alike and fools seldom differ.

yin and yang of business

The taichi symbol, taijitu, or more commonly referred to as Yin and yang or yin-yang is an instantly recognisable icon around the world. The object of countless tattoos and copy-book sketchings is an ancient Chinese symbol of balance. Plenty of other cultures have their own symbols and fables, too. There’s the concept of Heaven and Hell. Buddha taught about the Middle Way. All of nature is subject to day and night cycles, and even at the atomic level, everything we are seems to be a balance of positive and negative charges. Dark and light, order and chaos, male and female, etc. We’re all inherently familiar with the idea of balance.

It has always struck me as odd, then, when we hear perfectly reasonable bits of advice, and don’t realise their absolute contradictions.

For example; “look before you leap”. We all know this one. We should plan and observe risks without being too carefree. Good advice.

Yet that conflicts with “he who hesitates is lost”. Both seem to have a lesson or valuable piece of advice, and I don’t imagine anyone would be too quick to argue against one of these well-known expressions, yet it’s cognitive dissonance to hold both in our heads at the same time, surely.

Personally I love “great minds think alike” conflicting with “fools seldom differ”. Whenever I arrive at the same conclusion as someone and they loose the expression (they usually pick “great minds” in my experience) I’ll remind them of the other. It’s a bit of fun, but it reminds me that we’re not necessarily right just because we both got the same answer.

Yin and Yang is frequently absent in business advice

“It depends” is always a safe answer, but it doesn’t make for good headlines in the same way as dramatic statements do. I just want to highlight two examples of where I’ve found the concept ‘the middle way’ to be missing.

Office Layout & productivity

I’ve come across plenty of articles and anecdotal evidence as to why open-plan office spaces are better. They encourage collaboration, a sense of team-ship, more natural light, etc. Fair enough. Yet I can balance that with plenty of articles on productivity and reducing distractions that talk about the switching costs associated with being in a flow state on your current task, then having to answer a nosy co-worker who just wants to gossip for a few minutes, and how much this costs the company.

I think that with content creation being such a necessity in the online business world now, you’re bound to wind up with a lot of conflicting information presented as absolute truth. Everyone has an opinion and has their own experience what works best for them, and many seem to think, or at least present as if, that makes it the objectively better option. To return to the above example, open-plan office space probably is much better for journalists or comic writers, and closed-cubicles much better for programmers or accountants. Office-layout advice is likely to be quite different coming from one camp or another.

Innovation vs Focus

This one is huge, because it affects entire industries and thousands of jobs, yet I still haven’t come across articles or influencers who try to reconcile these two very valid viewpoints (there probably are some, but I haven’t yet seen them, and they’re definitely rare).

Yesterday, this Gary Vaynerchuk video came up on my feed and he’s talking (totally correctly, with great examples) about the need to innovate. It’s especially important to innovate when there’s massive disruption going on, as caused by the internet at first, then mobile, and now things like AI, blockchain, and privacy/security.

Also yesterday, I’m reading (audiobook in this case… I don’t know why I still feel the need to caveat that in 2019) Simon Sinek’s excellent book Start with Why and he mentions how DELL started selling music players in response to Apple’s iPod, but it didn’t work and they stopped after a couple of years.

Okay, copying the competition isn’t the same as innovation, but it did set the wheels turning in my brain. If DELL had done nothing in response, they’d have been criticised for inaction, most likely.

Nokia, once the biggest mobile phone brand in the world, died because they didn’t take smart phones seriously enough.

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: “act, don’t react”, “focus on your customers, not the competition”, “focus on what you’re good at” or “know what your company does”.

Simon Sinek in the same chapter as I read yesterday suggested that if the US Railroad companies had seen themselves as being in the ‘mass transit’ business, instead of the railroad business, they might have started airlines and much more of them would likely still be around today. Should they have innovated, reacted, or focused on what they’re good at?

The truth is that it’s very easy to criticise when we see failure, and survivorship bias makes it easy to say that a company “made the right choice”. Yet if their competition made the same choice, we’d likely say that the competing company should have innovated instead of continuing to focus on what they’d always done.


(Aside: Is this called “TLDR” now? hmm… just a thought. I’ve always written ‘conclusion’… anyway!)

So when you’re out there picking up words of wisdom for the day, or especially if you’re going to base a whole business strategy on them, do consider the value of the advice (it’s probably coming from a valid place) but also consider the opposite of that advice and whether there’s validity there also. Yin and yang. Balance.

Focus on what you’re good at, but prepare to innovate when you recognise that you’re being disrupted. Yin and yang is balancing action and reaction.

Work hard some days, but give yourself time to recover, too. Yin and yang is work-life balance.

Run your conclusions by other people. Yin and yang is realising that great minds think alike and fools seldom differ.

Or that’s how I see it, anyway. Do you have any other examples, or funny contradictory phrases you’ve noted? I’d love to hear your comments, either below, on social media, or privately.

Until next time…

PS As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I’ve linked the book “Start with Why” above. It costs you no extra to buy through the link, but I get a small percentage as a referral bonus.

Impostor Syndrome, and How to Overcome it

…especially the younger you are, or the fresher you are in a new job, industry, or project. Today we’re going to define and overcome impostor syndrome.

Hello again! I’m excited to be back for this one. I think it’s going to be very helpful, especially the younger you are, or the fresher you are in a new job, industry, or project. Today we’re going to define and attempt to overcome impostor syndrome.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Perhaps, I could best illustrate with an immediate example. As I write this, I may think “who am I to be offering advice on the internet? I can’t even maintain a weekly blog, seeing as how my last post was nearly 4 weeks ago (and on the topic ‘Stop Procrastinating‘, no less! (To be fair, I never actually set or publicly stated a goal of 1 week (also, I’ve been busy, not procrastinating 😉 (PS I’m a programmer, so I’m allowed to use multiple nested parentheses – get over it ))))”.

In short, it’s the feeling that we’re not good enough, and that other people don’t quite realise it yet but they’re surely about to find out, and then bad things will happen.

It’s the feeling you get on the first day of a new job; that you’ll never be able to do what these other people are doing, and you’re going to get fired pretty darn soon. Or when you walk into the first rehearsal with a long-haired, spiked-gauntlet wearing metal band and think “I’ll never fit in here. I work with spreadsheets!”.

Here’s a few of mine from over the years:

  • I’m not a real musician because I don’t know anything about jazz (still don’t).
  • I can’t work as a Tax Adviser, I only barely passed the second exams (never mind that 50% of people fail on the first attempt and I didn’t – that didn’t seem to factor in).
  • I’m not a real game developer because I haven’t published anything yet (despite the fact that I was developing a game) .
  • I’m not a real programmer because I haven’t a computer science degree and am self-taught (as were most of the original game developers and programmers).
  • I’m not a real entrepreneur because I haven’t had a truly successful business yet.

So what does that show? Well, apart from showing that I’ve had a few different jobs, it shows that impostor syndrome sounds a lot like negative self-talk, and coming up with excuses. It sounds a bit like “I can’t be happy until [X result]”, which is always a bad way to think.

But here’s a question for you: Would you say any of those things to your best friend? Or your child? Or your coworkers? Probably not. So why is it okay to say them to yourself?

Don’t worry, that’s not all I’ve got for you.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

There are a few ways to frame the feeling when it comes around to relieve that anxiousness. Here are a few thought experiments and practicals.

1. It’s common and it happens to everyone.

Thankfully, I spent several years in the games industry, which is full of the most talented, creative, intelligent, kindest, and most helpful people you could ever hope to meet. It’s where I first heard the term, and knew instantly that it referred to what I was feeling. Two minutes later, I’d learned that it applies to almost everyone.

According to the International Journal of Behavioural Science, around 70% of people experience this (it’s probably more like 98% in the games industry – common amongst artists, composers, programmers, and designers – nobody is safe! The 2% I’m just reserving for some of the Biz Dev people, and even then..).

I’ve met and worked with some very successful game developers and ‘regular’ entrepreneurs (if there is such a thing), and they’ve all suffered from it as well.

This isn’t the same as saying “you’re imagining it. Get over it”, but just that the person you’re afraid of finding out that you’re a fraud, even your manager, is probably thinking the exact same thing. In fact, the manager probably moreso (at least the good ones) because the more responsibility you have, the more prone you are to feeling it.

2. Time is a healer.

Thankfully, experience alleviates the feeling. So it doesn’t just scale infinitely. Otherwise most CEOs would be reclusive nervous wrecks all of the time.

As we grow, we gain confidence in our abilities. After all, nothing bad has happened yet! You haven’t been “found out and fired” yet. You’re probably safe.

The principle here is to compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. If you’ve read “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos”, this is rule number 4.

3. You’re outside your comfort zone. That’s a good thing!

mohamed_hassan / Pixabay

Our comfort zones are safe. That’s where we know what we’re doing, and we know what’s going to happen. It’s a great place to go to recharge your batteries, but it’s also where career and personal growth goes to die. Nothing interesting ever happens in the comfort zone.

Impostor syndrome tells you that you’re in new territory. Love it for that! Pay attention, accept that you’ll make some mistakes (and are expected to by your peers), learn, and grow.

4. Keep an Accomplishment Journal

Here’s a tangible step. Open up a simple .txt file or physical journal, and start writing down all the things you’ve ever accomplished that come to mind. Indulge yourself. Captain of the school football team? Won a science fair? Rescued a puppy? Learned an instrument? Mastered a skill you never thought you could achieve? Got recommended for an amazing job you weren’t expecting? Write it down.

This in an ongoing exercise. When you’re feeling down on yourself, use this as a life-preserver and remember that you’re on a journey, these are your past milestones, and you’ve more to come.

Tip: I like to add compliments I’ve received here as well. It’s so easy for them to roll off our backs and be forgotten. Criticisms are easy to remember, but not compliments. Write them down and let them benefit you a second time later.

In Conclusion

Impostor syndrome can be pretty uncomfortable at best, and paralysing at worst. The way to overcome it doesn’t involve not feeling it any more, but rather taking the sting out of it, and leaning into it – in the same way that courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the accepting of it and continuing anyway.

The next time you feel this particular anxious feeling rising, I hope you’ll remember this article, and you’ll have your Accomplishment Journal ready to go, right? I challenge you to take 5 minutes and start one right now, and tell me if it doesn’t make you smile!

Do please comment if you found this useful, or if you have any of your own techniques. It’s nice to hear from you all.

Until next time…