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Productivity expert says there’s an upside to a clogged email inbox

Unopened email can be stressful for many people, but one productivity expert suggests leaving them alone (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

WASHINGTON — Before you shake your head disapprovingly at a co-worker whose smartphone shows tens-of-thousands of unopened emails, consider that “slacker” may be on to something.

“It’s not rare to have hundreds of emails sitting in your inbox,” says productivity expert Ron Friedman, author of “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.”

Friedman says the notion that having no unopened emails in an inbox is a sign of productivity is wrong.

“To be productive, you sometimes need to ignore lots and lots of information,” says Friedman. “That’s the sign of an expert — someone who knows what not to pay attention to.”

Some employees attempt to deal with mountains of emails by using technology built into email software.

“I’ve seen people have their subject lines filtered, so that emails that come from your manager or your wife, those show up at the top, whereas emails where you’re just cc:ed show up at the bottom,” says Friedman.

However, Friedman says the most effective way to deal with email is to set aside specific times for reading and responding.

“For example, between 8:30 and 9, I’m going to check my email. I’m going to do it again at 12, and I’m going to do it again at 4, but when it’s not one of those three time slots, I’m going to shut off my email and actually get work done,” he says.

While communicating with social media has become part of many job descriptions, Friedman reminds, “these programs are designed to be addictive.”

Most social media offer notifications and alerts, to inform users that others are engaging with them. Friedman suggests turning the dings and vibrations off, if your goal is to be more effective at work.

“These programs are in the business of keeping us focused on them, and that’s not necessarily in our best interests,” says Friedman.

Bottom line, Friedman says keeping an eye on the job at hand will help workers get ahead.

“We have limited cognitive capacity, and if we’re dividing our attention between various tasks, we’re just not going to be as effective as we otherwise would be.”

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