Email workflow designed to optimize your time

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(MoneyWatch) Many of us live out of our inbox, as if we were paid to send email. And perhaps that's not too far off the mark given how many jobs require frequent, or even constant, email communication. Still, email strains our ability to do our actual work, intrudes on the time required to think and strategize, and keeps us glued to get away from our desk.

With those limitations in mind, strategy advisor and author Peter Bregman recently wrote about a better way to do email in the Harvard Business Review. Instead of keeping Outlook open and sending, reading, and responding to mail continuously, he recommends scheduling several specific email sessions -- each one a particular length, like 30 or 60 minutes-- throughout the day (such as morning, mid-day, and afternoon) and following a specific pattern, or workflow during each session.

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In each session, do the following, in this sequence:

1. Send mail. Start your email session by writing and sending mail you know that you already planned to send. That way, if someone responds to one of these mails right away, you'll see it and be able to respond in the same session.

2. Delete mail. Review your messages, and delete the ones you don't plan to reply to -- this includes spam and low-priority mail you don't have time to respond to.

3. Respond to mail. Now it's time to reply to anything in your inbox that you need to respond to. Bregman suggests starting at the top and working your way down -- don't prioritize, as that wastes time. Just deal with it in chronological order.

4. File mail. Once you've opened an email, don't leave it in the inbox. Either respond, delete, or file it. Put anything you can't or don't need to deal with in a separate folder -- this can be stuff like informational emails for an upcoming trip.

5. Read and follow up on email. Finally, use whatever time you have left in this email session to go through the email you filed to read long articles, follow links, and follow up on messages that are waiting for some sort of action.

6. Stop and change tasks. When the time is up for this email session, close Outlook and move on. Do something else until your next email session.