4 productivity tips that can backfire on you

If you’re looking for ways to better manage your time and be more productive, you won’t find any shortage of productivity advice out there. But not all advice is created equal. Here are four popular productivity tips that can backfire on you.

1. “Delete any email that isn’t high priority.” Read nearly any advice on managing your in-box and you’ll probably see some version of this advice. The idea is that if you’re someone who never gets around to reading and processing all your email anyway, you might as well just delete it as soon as it arrives and stop it from cluttering up your in-box. But getting trigger-happy with your delete key can backfire on you, if you end up missing an important email from a colleague, or not having any record of the decision on the Jones account when you need to consult it in a few weeks.

By all means, archive emails that you don’t need to act on – so that they’re still there if you end up needing them later – but don’t delete them.

2. “Set up an auto-responder telling people you only reply to email during certain days or hours.” The idea here is that in order to keep email from being a constant distraction, you’ll let people know that you only respond to emails between 4:00 and 6:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays (or whatever schedule you choose) so they know not to expect a response before then. The problem? It might work if you’re an entrepreneur who controls your own time, but most workers need to be responsive to other people, especially the boss. That doesn’t mean that you can’t set aside blocks of time to process your email and try to ignore it the rest of the time – you absolutely can – but announcing that plan in an auto-responder is a good way to annoy people like your boss’s boss when they email you about something time-sensitive.

3. “Give into your desire to procrastinate.” Tempted to procrastinate? Go ahead, say some experts. Give yourself a break, and then when you’re ready to return to the task you were putting off, you’ll have renewed energy and focus. And sometimes this works. But other times, you come back to it with the exact same desire to procrastinate and much less time to get the work done.

4. “Schedule every minute of your work day.” Creating a basic schedule is smart, because it allows you to see how much time you have and what you can fit in where – and it can help you realize, for instance, that you won’t have time to work on Important Project X next week so you’d better make serious progress on it this week. It can also keep you focused on the most important tasks at hand and prevent you from getting sidetracked on things that don’t matter as much. But if you schedule every minute of your day, you won’t have room for the many last-minute things that will pop up during the day. So it’s important to build in buffer zones too, even if it’s just an hour every day for fielding the unexpected.

{ 78 comments… read them below }

  1. BritCred*

    I find it much better to put a “office hours” note on my signature. Most people knew I wouldn’t be there or if I would I would reply and if someone has a email from me they were replying to *should* see it and know then. Obviously its not fool proof but for a part timer at least it gave some idea when they should be able to get hold of me…

  2. ThursdaysGeek*

    I don’t delete emails ever. I organize them into various folders, and then archive all those folders by year, but they’re always still there. As the search functions have gotten better, it’s become even more useful, although even with a not-so-good search, I know that information is there. (Ok, I’ve responded to a question like this just last month. What was my answer then, and how did I figure it out? Ah, here it is, so they get a quicker answer this time, because half of the work is already done. Hey, Thursdays, do you still have that email I sent last year? I’d like to reuse the picture.)

    1. Sharon*

      I have too many coworkers who do “reply all” just to say “Thanks, Bob”, so those get deleted as fast as possible. But overall, yes I file almost everything into folders so I can find things again.

      1. AMG*

        Unless it’s, ‘Thanks, AMG.’ Keep those so that people don’t say they never got your email.

      2. Lizzie*

        My workplace has a real problem with this. Well, I think it’s a problem – evidently I’m in the minority.

    2. Natalie*

      I used to do this, until our corporate office started auto-deleting anything older than 90 days. For certain ongoing issues I have to forward the same emails to myself every three months.

        1. Natalie*

          Technically, yes. However, it’s not within the policy so supposedly they will nuke any local copies they find on our machines. We can print to PDF, at least, or save html versions and get the lovely extra folder Outlook insists on linking with every html file.

          1. Liz*

            Can you use an Outlook Personal Folder and save it on external media (flash drive, or external hard drive)? If necessary you can unplug it each night to keep it safe.

            1. meg*

              I would not recommend this unless you know why the policy is there. In many cases it is there for legal reasons, so that if an old email cannot be found during discovery they can point to the policy. You could be creating a problem for the organization.

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        Oh, this SERIOUSLY sucks! My entire organizational system would be hosed if my company did this.

        1. Dan*

          We’re so smart we auto delete everything older than 30 days. I wish I could take the genius who came up with this idea and slap them in the back of the head.

          I have a system by which stuff that I need to keep gets archived every week. Unfortunately, it’s manual, and when I was out for two weeks over the holidays a bunch of stuff got auto deleted! Aaarrrggghhh!!!

          I need a better system. Anyone have any bright ideas?


          1. My two cents...*

            are you sure they’re not just auto-archived? ours are after 30 days, deleted from our inboxes after 6mo, and then held in the outlook archive indefinitely. though searching the auto-archiver kind of sucks.

            1. Natalie*

              At our company they may be being archived for future legal purposes, but us peons can’t access that server without a subpoena.

            2. Dan*

              Unfortunately, we use permanent unrecoverable delete of anything on the email server older than 30 days. I agree it sounds crazy. That’s why I can’t understand how TPTB thought this was a good idea…

      2. Karowen*

        That’s horrific. We have projects we have to redo annually and I cannot imagine not having my email there to reference.

      3. Anlyn*

        We have Enterprise Vault on our Outlook, so everything gets moved off the email server to save space and into the Vault. Unfortunately–and unless I’m doing it wrong–the search sucks, so it’s a pain in the ass to find anything. I used to be able to find stuff from years ago with no problem. Now, I’m lucky to find what I need at all.

    3. Witty Nickname*

      I used to do the separate folders thing, but the busier my job gets, the less time I have to deal with it, and the more chaotic my inbox gets. So now I just move everything into one archive folder as I get to it, and then once a month (or more often if it’s really busy and I’m getting messages that my inbox is out of space) I dump everything from the month prior in there. I figure if I haven’t gotten to it within 2 weeks or so, you’ve either bugged me about it again, or it’s not really important.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Oooooh. It’s totally possible that that’s reasonable for your context, but I’ve seen that really bite people in the ass before. Assuming that someone will follow up if it really needs to be done is a risky strategy. They might follow up again, but not until three months from now, at which point it’s a huge problem that it didn’t happen.

        I’ve had some memorable “you cannot operate this way” conversations with people who do this!

        1. Samantha*

          And if I’m the one sending the email, I’m going to get really annoyed that every time I send you an email that needs to be acted on, I have follow up with you in order for it to get done.

          1. Dan*


            I’ve worked with several folks who require “reminders”. They aren’t on my list of reliable people I wish were on every one of my projects…

            1. NewishAnon*

              At Last Job I was literally hired to make people do their work. 75% of what I did every day was send people reminders to do simple, but time sensitive tasks. I actually had to include an alert in the email that would automatically remind the recipient to do something by a certain date. Just opening my email scheduled itself in their calendar. If they didn’t do that my job was to pester them by IM and/or call/walk over to their desk to make sure the task got done. I was public enemy #1, but it was my job.

          2. Wanna-Alp*

            I hate it when people do that. I have enough trouble managing my own long to-do list and email inbox; why should I have to do some of your management too?

            The exception would be if I’m asking them for a non-work-related favor; then that might be part of the price I pay for getting that favor.

        2. Dr. Doll*

          Yes, please don’t use the Richard Feynmann method of management in general! It only works if you ARE a genius.

        3. Dr. Johnny Fever*

          I managed to get to my own version of Inbox Zero. I read emails as they come in and mark them for followup if I cannot reply then. I did this in a very unorthodox way – I don’t file any emails. I keep everything in my Outlook Inbox and use the search features to find what I need.

          When I try to set up folders and file things away, I find I get too smart for my own good and I miss messages or forget where I put them. This may not be for everyone, but since Outlook has good a robust search feature, it works for me.

          1. Koko*

            I have only a few special folders for things I want to be able to reference in the future very quickly without taking a lot of time to search through. They are: outgoing emails/press releases/etc sent by my company that I retain a copy of; invoices/receipts/registration confirmations; emails with reference or resource materials; professional development newsletters; and praise-y emails that make me feel good and/or will be good to include in my next performance eval. Everything else goes into a “Old Mail” folder, because I have a search function.

            I also use my own tweaked version of Zero Inbox. Everything in my inbox is what I’m currently dealing with, and I have 5-6 Outlook color-coded categories to group them – “Respond” at the top for emails that need a prompt response after I look something up; “Do” next for emails with miscellaneous tasks that can/should be done by the end of the day; “Read” at the bottom for newsletters, whitepapers, and that sort of non-urgent things I want to eventually read; and then in the middle usually 2-3 other categories for Big Winter Project that takes weeks/months to complete and I want to group all the emails related to it together in my inbox. My goal is when I leave the office each day to have 0 emails in my inbox that are uncategorized (and to not have anything in “Respond” or “Do” that’s more than 24 hours old).

          2. Formica Dinette*

            I have been doing this for the past three years and it has worked incredibly well for me.

      2. TOC*

        Whether or not someone will bug you with their request again really depends on a few things, in my opinion:
        1) How comfortable they feel bugging you (for instance, I give far fewer and gentler reminders to my higher-ups than those at/below my level unless they specifically request to be bugged)
        2) How organized and on-top-of-things the original sender is to keep track of whether you’ve responded

        Neither of those is directly related to a request’s importance. Like Alison said, ignoring things means that sometimes you won’t get asked about them again until it’s really urgent.

        1. Liz*

          Also, whether or not they care about it getting done. Plenty of my emails are notifications that person X needs to do Y here. *I* don’t care if Y happens, but person X (and manager) will certainly care if it doesn’t.

          So I don’t send followups unless I happen to be going back over something and notice it’s been missed, and I rarely get time to check like that these days.

        2. ljinlondon*

          As a more junior person, the comfort thing is so important. The other thing, if you’re a senior person ignoring emails feeling people will bug if it’s important, is that I don’t have the understanding Senior does about priorities, so unless Senior is indeed specific about when to bug, I’m not going to know what to bug about and my default is going to be not to bug about anything.

          1. Koko*

            Two of my bosses who I know are truly drowning in email handle this by just making a point to ask me in person or over the phone once or twice a week, “Are you waiting on anything from me?” I’m usually not, but if I am I’ll say, “Oh, yes, I was waiting for feedback on the Platinum Teapot ad copy. I’ll forward it back to you with an exclamation,” and then immediately forward the email with Outlook’s high-priority indicator while they are actively looking for it to come in. I like their method because it addresses the legitimate problem of getting too many emails to be certain you haven’t missed/overlooked anything, but leaves the onus of responsibility where it should be.

    4. Annie*

      I do the same thing, deleting emails stresses me out! Most people in my company do the read and delete thing, but I find that causes problems for me. It’s occasionally important to be able to pull up a random email from last September to prove that yes, the client did overpay and we told them we would credit their account. Or in the case of my direct boss, who sometimes gives contradictory instructions, it’s great to be able to forward an old email she sent me for clarification – “this morning you asked me to always do x and never y, but in this email last month you told me to always do y and never x – did I misunderstand you this morning or should I update my procedures moving forward?”

      Emails don’t take up much storage space unless they’re full of big attachments, so the argument that it eats up memory is silly nowadays.

      1. BritCred*

        I had a temp covering me for a while and she would make deals or sort queries with a client and once she “dealt” with the matter would delete it. Usually before we got paid. So I came back to effectively no information as to what had been done with that clients invoices, missing remittances and lots of other issues.

        I usually print our remittances from the email system for audit (they give us a list of which ones they want) and put a marker in the paper file where the original is for them to flip to which cuts down the necessary work time for both us and the auditors in half. Plus having it all stored in an email directory means I could find precedents in an instance instead of the hour + it took others.

        I was not happy!

  3. Bend & Snap*

    One thing that works well for me is turning off email while I read and sort it. I only do this if I have a high volume of email, but it really helps not to have new ones coming in when I’m trying to get my head around my inbox.

  4. sophiabrooks*

    I never ever delete emails either and I don’t really organize them (Except I have my boss’s email put into a separate folder so I kcan deal with it immediately. I also don’t organize them. If I did either of these things, I think I would spend my entire day dealing with emails. Instead, I use search, and I have been able to pull important things up from very far in the past. Everyone thinks I am crazy for doing this.

    1. Annie*

      That would drive me crazy, but I can totally see how that could be a simple way of dealing with email. Outlook (and most other email programs) have very functional search functions, regardless of how your emails are organized.

      1. Natalie*

        Interesting, I have had the opposite experience with Outlook, mostly because it doesn’t recognize AND or quotation marks to mean that I want both terms.

        1. Koko*

          My version of Outlook treats strings in quotes as complete phrases and won’t return results that don’t include the complete phrase.

    2. Noah*

      I don’t think you’re crazy at all. I only have three folders: Inbox, Pending, and Archive. I start my workday by going through email, items that require a response or action are flagged, the rest are sent to Archive. As I work through the flagged items they are either moved to Pending or Archive and the flag removed. Once I get through the Inbox I start working through Pending, to see if any are done and can be moved to Archive.

      Like you, I have always been able to find items quickly with a search. I cannot imagine spending time sorting them into folders, and with my job I’m not really sure how I would sort them anyways.

    3. C Average*

      I don’t think you’re crazy at all.

      I save EVERYTHING ever. (I used to occasionally delete things that seemed completely unnecessary. But then I got questioned on my decision not to proceed with a particular task, and I was able to produce the out-of-office notification from the key person who would’ve needed to approve my taking action in order to justify the delay. This convinced me that it’s really never safe to delete anything!)

      If you have good search kungfu and tend to recall who told you what when, it’s far easier to search than to navigate folders, at least in my experience. I once let a colleague persuade me to organize and file my way down to the much-vaunted inbox zero, and I spent the next several months regretting it. I found the folders and files way more confusing to navigate than a simple search, and a huge pain to maintain.

      1. Natalie*

        I saw this from my old bosses – they saved everything, including out of offices – and I get the impulse. But I always wondered why they didn’t just feel comfortable saying “Joe wasn’t in that week” without having to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Do you feel like you would be challenged for something like that?

        1. C Average*

          In my case, I probably wouldn’t remember. On any given day I make lots of small decisions predicated on other people’s approvals, schedules, and competing demands. If I did happen to remember but lacked an email trail to prove it, I don’t think anyone would necessarily challenge me. It’s just easier to always have an email trail, because my team makes these kinds of small decisions so frequently and gets questioned about them after the fact so often that it’s best to just sort of maintain on-the-go documentation of everything we do. It covers our asses and prevents us from having to remember everything.

          1. Natalie*

            Huh. As I said, I get the impulse… maybe I’m just being influenced by my new boss, who responds to those kinds of small inquiries with “I don’t remember the details but I’m sure we had a good reason”. People seem to accept it.

            1. Kyrielle*

              Huh. And I need to know why we decided because we might now change that decision. If we decided X because Y required Q’s approval and Q was in another dimension that month, then switching to Y – assuming Q approves it, now that he’s back – is awesome.

              If we decided X because we consulted with Q and Y has a major flaw KABOOM that we don’t want to trigger, we either need to stick with X or come up with a Z.

              Or start selling blast gear, but that’s really not an industry we’re looking to expand into.

    4. A Non*

      That’s how I operate too. Yay for Google Apps and their amazing search functionality. I flag things that need attention so they stay at the top of my inbox, then everything else just stays where it is. I’ve never had trouble finding things.

    5. Dr. Johnny Fever*

      I posted above before reading this, but I’m right there with you. I can search for what I need in my Inbox, not multiple folders. that’s wasted time trying to remember my rationale for where I filed the email – by project, by sender, or by domain.

      I don’t delete and I don’t archive. I can save local copies of important emails, luckily, so I can weather the auto-deletes.

  5. danr*

    I’ve never understood the need to ‘read and delete’. Every email program that I’ve used has some sort of folder/mailbox/label setup for emails and filters for putting most emails in the right place automatically.

    1. fposte*

      What I should do is “read and properly archive”–I have a tendency to resort to an unfortunately flat hierarchy, which is a polite way of saying that everything ends up staying in my inbox.

      1. hildi*

        Have you used the “clean up conversations” button? (assuming you have Office 2010). I had 20,000 items in my sent folder and I wanted to clean it up, so I used the clean up button and it knocked it right down to 13,000. Same for my inbox -I had 600 and it took it down to 400 with the clean up button. Very handy so I didn’t have to go through each message to open and it and find out it’s a redundant message from an ongoing conversation.

        1. fposte*

          I’m using Thunderbird. From the reactions I get that’s practically like writing emails in vi.

          (By the way, is there a version of this button for my house?)

        2. The IT Manager*

          “Clean up conversations” is one of the best new features of an office product in ages.

          1. Koko*

            First button I hit when I get back from vacation. It’s a godsend to only have to read one complete email chain that you missed the entirety of while you were out for 2 weeks instead of all 25 emails that you were CC’d on in that one chain…times 35 email chains!

  6. Tim H*

    I’ve seen the tip about only responding to emails at a certain time from many places, and it’s always seemed silly. I was a construction manager (before quitting to travel) and the job was too fast paced to hold off on my emails. If I didn’t respond quickly I would get called, and if I didn’t answer the decision would be made without my input. I empowered and trusted my team, but often they didn’t have the background to be making the decision. Instead of ignoring my email I found it better to skim my email, and then choice not to respond. I guess it comes down to the will power not to get sucked into the email unless you need to.

    1. Bend & Snap*

      Yes. I don’t check my email between 8pm and 8am unless there’s a really good reason. Sometimes there is but otherwise I go down a rathole and can’t turn my brain off.

      1. Noah*

        At times I miss my BlackBerry, especially the real keyboard, but that blinking red light that meant you had email was so tempting. It is way easier to ignore the email on my iPhone.

  7. Gem*

    I’ve only recently started my job, and don’t get that many emails, but I started to organise it as soon as I got any – we get system emails on a regular basis, so that gets filtered, and I sort everything else as I go. I only keep things in my actual inbox that require me to do anything – once its done, it gets put in a folder. I’ll deal with archiving when I get to it, but will probably do it on a yearly basis :)

    Planning too much bothers me a lot – its so inflexible! But I also like having a vague answer when people ask me what my time looks like on any given week/day.

    1. danr*

      Find out what your mailbox limit is and start archiving when you get close. In time yearly may be too long to wait.

  8. C Average*

    I love this post so much. I’ve frequently read exactly this sort of advice and wondered, “who DOES this??”

    (Actually, I know who does this. I have a former colleague who loved productivity hacks and was always test-driving the latest gimmick. People half-joked that he was so busy using productivity tools that he had no time to actually be, you know, productive.)

    1. Gem*

      I have a similar co-worker. He spends so much time coming up with new ways to track his work that I don’t think he actually does any work!

      1. Suzanne*

        Oh my. I had that co-worker, too. We were all working overtime (which we hated) but he’d spend hours figuring out how to add macros to the system etc. but his overall production was very low. He was eventually moved into a different position, kind of a promotion. Ah, corporate life….

    2. Nervous accountant*

      I fear I may be one of those coworkers. I label all my emails based on the task (tax, bookkeeping payroll etc) and I also made seperate excel sheets to track them and make my own notes and color codes and all that.

  9. L Veen*

    I misread #3 as “Give in to your desire to procreate” – that WOULD destroy your work productivity for a while!

    1. Creag an Tuire*

      If you did -that- at the office, I suspect productivity would soon become the least of your problems.

  10. little Cindy Lou who*

    Thank you for the article, Alison. Those were 4 of the big things that I just can’t see myself doing in my job and I was getting frustrated reasoning out whether I was just making excuses or whether I was right to think I need to stitch together a more personalized productivity/time management system.

  11. Steve G*

    Good topic.

    People doing these things are such a pet peeve of mine. Especially the deleting emails thing. All of the people I know that do this are not as busy as they act, and they could really just buckle down and read the darn emails. One director at my last job was always on his phone, yet he NEVER read anyone’s emails. It was such an ongoing mystery as to how he was “so busy” but never read people’s emails. Also, whenever one of us would sit in his office for a meeting, you’d see maybe two three emails come in in an hour, and one or two spam-type emails. His guesstimates at the # of emails he got her day was SO blown out of proportion!!

    1. Steve G*

      And when I say “always on his phone,” I mean reading. So it was always a mystery as to what he was reading, because his job didn’t require any reading except reading emails.

  12. Suzanne*

    Oh, yes! The email deleter. My former supervisor who went on vacation for two weeks, returned, and announced to us that her emails had backed up so badly (400 emails!!) that she just deleted them all! She told us that if we had emailed her anything important, we’d just have to resend because she couldn’t be expected to wade through them all! Wow.

  13. Elizabeth West*

    I have to disagree with #3–for me, a brain break every so often is essential. I get data and documents that I have to stare at for ages and it really zones me out. I need to stop and go get tea, or flip over to something else for a few minutes, or else I start missing things and making mistakes.

  14. George*

    To be honest, I delete e-mails but I also have a document in my computer named “Letters”, where I copy every important or potentially important message before clicking on the erase icon.

    Better safe than sorry, and definitely an alternative for those who want to keep the best of both worlds, I mean, a clean inbox and having e-mails stored somewhere useful.

    My 0.02.

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