How batching emails doubles your productivity (3-2-1 Method)


The average knowledge worker sends and receives 126 emails per day. 70% of emails are opened within six seconds of receipt. The never-ending task-switching that comes with doing so wreaks havoc on our productivity. Fortunately, there’s a better way.

What to do

Tackle your emails with 3 folders, 2 labels – and 1 hour of batched work per day.

Why it works

The best practice for processing emails is organizing them into three folders called “Action”, “Reading”, and “Waiting”. The “Action” folder is where emails go that need a response. The “Reading” folder is where you put emails that you want to read later, but don’t require a response (like this newsletter, I hope). And the “Waiting” folder is where you can keep emails for which you’re waiting on another person’s action (hat tip to Ben Meer for bringing this system to my attention).

As Nir Eyal (pictured above) writes in Indistractable, the most important aspect of an email is when it needs a reply. By labeling time-sensitive emails accordingly, you’ll touch each email only two times – and never forget to take care of each of them. A great way to do just that is using two labels for time-sensitive emails: one label for “Today” and another for “This week”.

Lastly, checking and answering emails constantly will break your productivity. Even “just briefly checking” anything for a few seconds can create huge losses in productive time. As attention expert Gloria Mark has found in her groundbreaking research, work takes 50% longer when we’re continually switching tasks. This means that batching email instead of switching tasks leads to an increase in productivity of up to 100%. 

Enter the 3-2-1 method.

How to do it

1) To get started with the 3-2-1 method, set up your folders and labels. Begin by creating a new email folder that you name “Pre-Sep 14” (or today’s date). Then, drag all your inbox emails into that folder. Don’t worry – you can process them later. Next, create the three additional email folders called “Action”, “Reading”, and “Waiting”. Also, set up two labels for time-sensitive email. As mentioned above, I use a red label for “Today” and an orange one for “This week”. 

2) According to a recent study, 84% of people keep their email client open in the background all the time. Don’t be most people. Turn it off by default – and spend one hour of batched work per day on email. Break that hour into three, four or five sessions, depending on how responsive you need to be at work. I usually go for three 20-minute sessions at 10 am, 1 pm and 4 pm. Whenever you get to one of these sessions, open up your email client and get to work.

3) As new emails come in, go through the following three steps. First, organize incoming emails. Sort them into the “Action”, “Reading”, and “Waiting” folders – and archive emails that don’t fit into any of these. Also, label time-sensitive emails: add a red label to emails that require an action that day, and an orange label to emails that do so that week. Second, reply to emails in your “Action” folder. Start with the ones with a red label. As you go, archive the emails you’ve taken care of. Third, when you’ve made it through the “Action” folder and have some time left, work through the “Waiting” and “Reading” folders for the rest of the session.

By using the 3-2-1 method, you’ll stay on top of (urgent) emails, make time for the most important work each day, and double your productivity.