Most professionals rely on email. It is often the starting point for new work. The center of a client conversation. And the initiator of a document, client information, job, task, or discussion piece. According to McKinsey, the average professional spends 28% of the work day, or 2.6 hours in their inbox.

Which is why, as you seek ways to be more efficient and get more done in your day, one of the first things you address should be your email habits. The answer is not to run away from email. Instead, it’s essential that you find ways to harness email and make it work for you. Not the other way around.

How to ensure email doesn’t impact your real work

1. Have a plan: what’s your ideal day?

Like most things, success with email starts with how you approach it. Email is an extremely high volume activity, so even a small change applied over hundreds and thousands of conversations will add up to a lot of time saved. You need to have a purposeful approach, checking at specific times in the day and then leaving email to focus on other things.

You should have an ideal day in mind that lays out specific tasks you want to accomplish. This will ensure you always prioritise focused work over email.

For example, when you first sit down at your desk for the day, you might be in the habit of checking email and social media before anything else. Instead, make that first step be to determine the top three things you want to accomplish for the day. Then, block out time to dedicate to these top tasks. During this time, you should close down email completely.

Part of your ideal day should include dedicated times that you will manage your email (more on that later).

2. Don’t let email be a constant distraction

To deliver high-value work efficiently and effectively, you need to be able to spend some dedicated time focusing on it, and nothing else. This requires turning off notifications, including ignoring email, so you can achieve a state of deep work.

Interruptions and notifications are flying at us at all times. Even if you ignore an incoming email, just the act of diverting your attention to think about it takes your focus away from what you’re working on.

The best approach is to leave email notifications behind for dedicated periods during your work day, while you’re doing focused work.

3. Dedicated time to complete email

Of course, email is essential for communication and collaboration. So you can’t completely ignore it. A proven way to use email effectively is by allocating specific blocks of time to focus your attention on it. A best practice approach is to take three or four 20-minute blocks each day to work through your inbox.

If you are used to checking email constantly this will be an adjustment. Typically, you’ll find it does not take long to get through your emails and now the amount of time you’re spending is dramatically reduced.

How to use email effectively and ensure it serves its purpose

4. Write short, concise emails

An increasing number of people are reading emails on their phones, which changes the way they are read. On a smaller screen, emails are more likely to be scanned read in just a few seconds.

Think about how you read emails. Often, if an email is long, you’ll read part of it then plan to come back to it later.

You want to avoid this. If you’re planning to come back later, it lingers in the inbox and continues to take up mental energy. When you send long emails, you are part of the problem, because you are creating this for someone else. It’s also more likely that they will reply to you in the same fashion.

5. Be directive with your subject lines

Short and concise is great, but you still need to make sure action is taken. This starts with a subject line. A good practice is to treat subject lines like a to-do item, so the recipient knows exactly what the email is about.

For example, the subject of an email could be: “Phone Jerry 415-555-5555.” If you’re making an introduction or setting up a call, just make the directive so the recipient can quickly read, take action and move on.

6. Personalise

If an email comes from an unknown sender, it usually gets deleted. Make sure the emails you send are clearly coming from you and personal in who they are addressing. If it’s personalised and specific it’s much more likely to create a response. Everyone is so bombarded with email that anything looking generic will get ignored.

How to manage email efficiently and get out of your inbox sooner

7. Purge

Your time and attention is extremely valuable and you need to conserve it as much as possible. When you see your inbox, you need to purge everything that’s irrelevant to your productivity. One quick way to do this is to delete everything based on the sender and subject line.

If you don’t recognise the sender or care about the subject line – delete without opening and move on. Your time is valuable! Treat it as such.

8. Triage: Use the 4 Ds to clean up your inbox

Taking your purge one step further, you now need to do something with every email. You can break this down into the four Ds:

Do it
Defer it
Drop it
Delegate it

Emails are not inherently to-do items. They come in all shapes and sizes. So your goal when receiving an email is to turn it into a to-do. Give someone a to-do, or do it yourself so the email is finished. If you choose to defer an email, don’t just leave it sitting. Create a to-do or reminder so you have a clearly defined task with a due date.

Don’t let the email pile up. Make decisions, take actions and move on.

9. Tool-up

Part of the issue with email is that it’s often used in ways email is not intended for. There are now a variety of productivity tools that reduce the need for email. For example, a calendar app such as Calendly allows you to send a single email with a link where someone can choose and schedule time, and an appointment is automatically sent with information.

If you’re using email, this could be a lengthy back-and-forth of comparing availability, providing contact information and confirming times. Using a tool saves a lot of time and effort.

Keep email to quick, actionable communication and find other tools for the rest.

10. Don’t co-mingle email

Just like you don’t want your clients co-mingle their business and personal funds, you need to keep your emails separate.

If you are signing up for newsletters or sites that send automated email, don’t use your business address. These can have a purpose, but create clutter in your inbox.

You also don’t want personal emails about your kids’ sports teams mixing in with your business. It’s best to have at least two accounts, to keep these separate. The best case scenario is to have three—one for newsletter signups or opt-ins, one for personal and one for business.

Email is an inevitable part of your day. It will either help you be more productive or provide a stressful distraction. How you approach your input and output in email can make a significant difference in the quality of time spent at home and the office.

Follow these tips and you’ll keep your email under control and spend time in the areas you care about most.