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Dan Ariely is a Duke University behavioural economist, famed for his book Predictably Irrational and his many studies of human behaviour. But even famous behavioural economists are not immune from email problems. And when he realized how much time email was consuming – "it's hard not to feel a slave to email," he says – he turned his research towards our inboxes.

We receive a broad array of material by email – not just from clients or colleagues, but friends, relatives, and organizations – and it comes according to their timeline. It arrives when they wish to send it, rather than when we need to receive it. That led him to pose a question: "What if we can find the email that should interrupt you and the email that shouldn't interrupt you?"

In that vein, he asked people to review the last 40 emails they received and asked them how soon they really needed to have seen each missive. Was it immediately? Or could they wait until some other point that day, or even that week or month? Or even never?

He reports on his blog that only 12 per cent of emails need to be looked at immediately. A further 7 per cent need to be seen within one hour, meaning a total of 19 per cent have to be looked at fairly immediately. Beyond that, 4 per cent needed to be seen within four hours, 17 per cent by the end of the day, 10 per cent by the end of the week, and 15 per cent at some point. The remaining 34 per cent – one out of three – didn't need to be seen at all.

Of course, you don't usually know in advance which category a particular email falls into.

Or do you? Prof. Ariely tried another experiment in which people used a very simple sorting technique based on the sender. Depending on the sender, emails could be set to be received at different intervals.

"Similar to our initial findings, only 23 per cent of emails were set up to be in the 'immediate' category. Ten per cent were relegated to the every-four-hours category, 19 per cent to the end of the day, 16 per cent to the end of the week, 5 per cent to someday and a whopping 27 per cent to the 'never' category," he writes.

The tool that was created out of that experiment is called Filtr, available for iOS. But, of course, a lot of email software offers the opportunity to colour code what comes in by sender, which might allow similar sorting.

Prof. Ariely hasn't done any user-satisfaction surveys, Joe Pinsker reports in The Atlantic, but the economist says the app is making his own day less frustrating. "Being able to filter it, and say, 'Okay, those are the small subset that are actually important to get to, and the rest can wait,' is a huge improvement to my well-being," he said.

Jim Estill, who has been CEO at two Canadian firms and now is a partner in a technology investment fund, similarly began to address his email. He was overwhelmed by his inbox and provoked by an overheard comment that "your inbox is a convenient way for others to put things on your priority list." On his blog, he shares the questions on his mind and some of his thoughts:

  • Should you reply politely to every inquiry, or is it wiser to just delete some?
  • His preferred style is triage: Scan for things that need dealing with and leave others for later. “I am wondering if leaving those other things for a few days might make them go away,” he writes.
  • Stress arises when his inbox is not at zero by the end of the day. He knows it’s “self-stress,” but it’s still there. Should he meditate, or attack the email?
  • Spam doesn’t bother him. He can delete 100 emails in a few minutes. What takes time – and this may be true for you – are the long emails he needs to carefully read and the ones that require action.

"Net conclusion: I am going to be a bit ruder to be a bit saner," he says.

M.I.N.D. your business

As well as considering being ruder, you may want to M.I.N.D. The MIT, a catchphrase consultant David Dye uses to focus individuals and teams on their top priorities.

On his blog, he says the overwhelming feeling we experience when looking at our to-do list is real, and there are two realities you will never escape: There will always be more to do than you can possibly get done, and you therefore only have one choice – what one thing will I do right now?

That priority is often called your Most Important Thing, or MIT. To help you stay focused, he came up with four important steps, summed up by M.I.N.D.

First, what Matters most:

  • What results must you achieve to succeed?
  • What values have you committed to?
  • When the team walks away from its work, what will members be proud to have accomplished?
  • How will they know they’ve done their very best?

Second, what actions have the most Impact:

  • What are the critical behaviors that drive your results?
  • If you could only do one thing, which behavior would have the greatest impact?
  • What invisible behaviors might you forget? He cites sleep, time with others, and fun as examples.

Third, where do you (or your team) need to say No:

  • What are you choosing to do instead of your MIT?
  • How can the team make a different choice?
  • What are the creative ways – which may at first seem silly or impossible – to do things differently?
  • Where does your team need to have tough conversations about what not to do?

Finally, how will you and your team stay Disciplined:

  • What are your biggest distractions?
  • How can you and your team ensure those don’t derail the effort?
  • How will you keep the MIT in front of you all the time?
  • How will you hold yourselves accountable for maintaining focus on the MIT?

By minding those four steps, you can clarify what needs to be done and, just as importantly, develop the behaviours and discipline to attain them. And by following Prof. Ariely's and Mr. Estill's advice, you can find more time for your most important thing.

Quick Hits

  • “Why do people follow you? Is it obligation or inspiration,” asks Montreal leadership coach Tanveer Naseer.
  • If your best ideas come in the shower, you can write them down immediately with the waterproof notepad and pen AquaNotes.
  • Consultant Steve Keating suggests investing five minutes every day to “innerview” one of your team members. “An interview is what you do when you’re hiring someone. An innerview is what you do when you’re interested in keeping them and building their success. You must see their motivations and lives from the inside to truly understand why they do what they do,” he writes.
  • Another useful made-up word is “persatient.” To be successful, says career coach Alan Kearns, you must be persistent and patient.
  • To skip the Microsoft Word start screen and go immediately to a blank document, Allen Wyatt recommends setting a new default by clicking the file tab on the ribbon, clicking the options button, selecting “general” on the left side of the dialogue box that opens, and then finding the start-up options and clearing the check mark beside “Show Start Screen when this application starts.”