“What’s the single greatest interruption that kills your productivity?”

Over the past 24 months I’ve asked this question to thousands of business owners and the overwhelming answer (by a 3:1 ratio to its nearest competitor) is email.

Most of us are drowning in email, never realizing that the very way we habitually use it has made it much harder to get it back under control.

Here are 12 “hacks” if you will to help you increase your personal productivity by getting in control on how you use email.

1. Email is addictive–avoid that first temptation to check. Recognize that taking that first “hit” by even doing a quick scan of your inbox will almost invariably lead you into a longer than anticipated run of responding to email.

The best way to keep this from happening is to refrain from checking your inbox at all (for designated periods of time.)

Understanding that anytime you open your inbox you are tempted into spending more time there, consider leaving a couple blank email windows open for you to use while doing other work so you don’t have to go into your email program at all.

This leads directly to the next several email tips…

2. Set firm email boundaries and respect them. To produce at your best you need interruption free chunks of time in which to get valuable work done. Understanding that email is addictive and when you do one you will likely get sucked into doing many, build blocks of time into your day when you will close your email program and do other work.

For me, every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday I refrain from checking email until at least 11am, giving me a solid 2-3 hours to get much higher value work done.

What days and times will you go “email free”? Put this into your calendar as a definite appointment. Coach your team about what you are doing and why, asking for their support to help you produce more for the company.

I strongly recommend that you choose the first part of your day, right when you get into your office, to use for your focused, email free time. Looking at the stats from our business coaching clients, odds are that if you check email early, you’ll have a high proportion of your days derailed by urgent, but low value fires that could have waiting 1-3 hours for you to handle.

3. Understand that every time you do that one “quick” email, that interruption radically diminishes your concentration and flow on the other, higher value work you were doing.

“But it only takes me a minute or two to do a quick scan of my inbox.” Sure, but chances are that you then quickly shoot off 3-5 emails, which costs you many minutes to get back into your pre-inbox scan flow. What’s more, the faster you respond to email, the more you’ll get back (see below), creating a vicious cycle.

4. Leverage your staff (e.g. personal assistant, etc.) to screen your email. The biggest excuse business people give for checking email goes like this, “What happens if a key client/vendor/staff member has a problem that they need my help to solve and it’s truly an urgent, important fire?”

Let’s get real for a moment. The average business person checks his or her inbox over 20 times a day. How many of those 20 times uncover a truly mission critical situation that must be dealt with?

You can protect your time and your company by leveraging a staff member to screen your email (at least in certain times in the day and week) to give you solid high value creation focus time. If there is a real time sensitive, mission critical emergency they can knock on your door or call/text you to get your attention.

5. Turn off your auto send-and-receive function (or at least reduce the frequency it downloads new e-mail). Contrary to the way it feels, you don’t need to see every e-mail the instant it comes in. Also, turn off e-mail alerts (audio and visual). Instead, intentionally check e-mail when you choose versus when someone hits send to you. E-mail alerts only promote compulsive behaviors that kill productivity.

One business coaching client shared that this one tip alone increased his annual income by over $100,000 per year.

6. To get less e-mail, send less. The more you send, the more you get.

7. To get less email, age your email before you reply. The faster you respond the more likely you’ll get an email back. Every email you get takes time to mentally process and to manually move, delete, or respond to.

Consider waiting an hour… a day… even a week before you send your response. You can always use the “delayed delivery” feature of your email program to respond now but to delay your response being sent.

8. If you’re involved in a frustrating back-and-forth conversation by e-mail due to hazy understanding on either side, just pick up the phone or speak in person. E-mails are not good as a nuanced conversation tool and it shouldn’t replace all conversations.

If you think the topic may be a sensitive one, or that the reader may be upset or offended by your e-mail, don’t send it. Talk with them instead (even if you then send a summary or confirming e-mail after).

One of the most important functions you perform as a leader of your company is to reduce the “FUD” factor–the fear, uncertainty and doubt. So consider talking with the other person versus shooting off yet another email.

9. In replying to a long conversation thread, pull up the key information to the top of the e-mail. Make it easier for your recipient to quickly get what you are communicating.

Also, if you are creating a longer e-mail with multiple items, consider numbering your items to make them easier for your reader to follow and respond to your e-mail.

10. Don’t use e-mail to manage your “tasks” or to manage your team’s tasks. Use a project list on a spreadsheet, or a shared task management or project management tool instead.

E-mail is a poor place to keep a running list. What comes today is washed away by what comes later today (let alone tomorrow).

There are simple, inexpensive project management tools available online and on mobile devices that allow you to list, categorize, prioritize, and share your open action items. It’s a worthwhile investment to prevent tasks and follow-ups from falling through the cracks.

11. Learn your top five e-mail recipients’ preferences. Just sort your “Sent” folder by recipient and pick out the five people your send the most e-mail to. These will likely be internal team members.

Ask them if they prefer wide or shallow e-mails (i.e., one e-mail per subject as it comes up, or a grouped e-mail that has more items in one single e-mail).

When are their e-mail-free times? What do they want to and not want to be CC’d on?

What are the three things they like best about how you communicate with them by e-mail? What three things would they like you to do differently about how you communicate by e-mail to make their life better?

Then reverse the conversation and share your e-mail preferences with them.

12. Use powerful subject lines to streamline the time it takes for your team to process and find e-mail.

No more blank subject lines, or “Hello . . .” Instead, you and your team should make your subject line a clear, concise description of the e-mail. This helps you screen messages and it helps you later search for e-mails you need to find after the fact.

If you are forwarding the e-mail, don’t be lazy; redo the subject line to make sense to your recipient and ask that your team do that for you too.

Expect your staff to do the same.

Also, to help you grow your business and get your life back, we just put the finishing touches on a powerful free toolkit which includes 21 in-depth video trainings on how to intelligently scale your company. To access this free toolkit click here. Enjoy.

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Originally published at www.inc.com