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Have you ever wasted countless hours, if not days, managing your inbox?
I certainly have. And the prevalence of remote working nowadays does not make it easier.
Picture it. You start the day with great intentions, you’ve thought about your “big threes”, the stuff that will move the needle the most and that you need to get done. You get to work (or turn your laptop on), and what is the first thing you do? Check your emails.
Fast forward a few hours. You’ve answered a few emails (it took a while because they were important emails). You’re halfway through reading what you’ve been copied into (wondering why you needed to know that). And, well, you have started working on that report. It’s there, in the background. Thing is, every time you get back to it… Ping! Here comes another email, and with it, the urge to click on that notification pop-up…
It’s 5 pm. The day hasn’t quite gone as planned. You haven’t achieved what you set out to achieve, but it’s OK, you’ve been “busy”. Why not add these things to your to-do list for tomorrow?…
Sounds familiar? Add in a few meetings, phone calls and instant messages, and that’s your typical 9 to 5.
- Time spent on productive activities: 10%
- Time wasted fire-fighting: 90%
There’s got to be another way, right? How do successful people tame their inbox and maximise their time to focus on value-adding activities?
In this post, I share with you 20 email productivity tips to do more with less time that I have learned and implemented in my career and help you focus your energy on being proactive, not reactive.
The post is split into 3 parts to help you maximise email productivity sustainably through:
- Taking action immediately through limiting unnecessary distractions, then
- Building a system to manage your inbox, and finally
- Changing your mindset to deal with emails more effectively.
Email Productivity – Part 1: Limit Distractions
Did you know that, on average, it takes 23 minutes to get back to work after being distracted? Now, factor in that we receive on average 121 emails each day, and the real question is: how do we ever get anything done?
The first thing you need to do to get your time back is to be intentional and minimise distractions to increase email productivity.
1. Turn off notifications on your desktop
By far the biggest culprit when it comes to distractions is the pop-up in the corner of your screen. Sure, you can tell yourself you have strong willpower and you will not click. But you keep it on, “just in case” an important email arrives.
Don’t. Willpower doesn’t work. And exercising willpower takes energy away from value-adding work.
Instead, do yourself a favour and deactivate email notifications.
2. Schedule time to deal with your emails
To avoid being reactive throughout the day, block time to check your emails – 2 to 3 times a day maximum.
Outside of these slots, avoid it at all costs.
This is not going to be easy at first, as you might be missing important information. Checking emails can also be a welcome distraction and a way to procrastinate. Not an easy habit to change.
However when someone is emailing you, they rarely expect an immediate response, and if they do, they will usually follow up with a phone call (which makes checking your emails all the time redundant).
Try this for a few days and you’ll quickly appreciate how much energy and focus you regain to do the work that matters.
3. Close down your inbox when you’re not using it
This goes without saying, but to avoid being distracted by emails, close your inbox. Only open it during your email checking slot.
The reason, once again, is to reduce the reliance on pure willpower.
By creating an extra step in your email checking process (i.e. opening your inbox and waiting for it to load), you’re less likely to fall victim to temptation.
4. Show emails as conversations
I’m a big fan of the conversation view. Essentially, when the option is on, your emails are grouped by subject, so that back and forths are showing together under one main email trail.
The main benefit is that you get the full view of the conversation at any time (very useful to get attachments sent in an earlier message).
Your inbox also looks a lot “cleaner” and less busy.
5. Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list
We all do it naturally. Emails prompt things to do, commitments, requests, reference material to read etc… so it’s easy to leave them in the inbox as a reminder.
The problem is that it increases your reliance on the inbox. You need to constantly check it to make sure you are ticking off your to-do list.
It’s also much better to view your tasks at a glance, rather than having to browse through crowded emails. You can write the specific actions you need to take to complete your tasks and break them down where necessary. It is clearer, more intentional, and will motivate you to achieve more.
6. Unsubscribe (and be ruthless about it!)
How many email lists are you part of? How many newsletters and other automated emails do you actually read?
To avoid distraction, you need to be ruthless about what lands in your inbox. If it doesn’t add value immediately, get rid of it.
I sometimes receive emails that spark my interest but that I’ll probably read “later” when I have more time. I never do. It sits in my inbox for days or weeks, until I finally realise that I just won’t read it.
(Plus, remember, you are now being intentional about when you check your emails. So if not now, when?)
If you’re on an email list and you’re not reading the emails 2-3 times in a row, unsubscribe. You won’t miss out (you can always follow on socials).
7. Ask to be removed from CC if not relevant
Don’t you love being a silent witness to a conversation that has nothing to do with you…
I get it, you need to be “kept in the loop” because the topic at hand somehow concerns you. That’s fine until you realise that you spend hours each day reading through emails just because you might need to know something.
Don’t you have better things to do? I certainly do.
I now ask people to take me off copy in email threads that don’t directly concern me – including where I can get an update later on in a more efficient way (such as a team meeting).
As a result, I am less distracted and spend less time reading unnecessary emails.
Email Productivity – Part 2: Build a System
Email productivity is a process. And like all processes, systems can be put in place to make it more efficient and less time-consuming.
8. Follow the 2-minute rule
Your priority when you check your emails is to action whatever can be actioned quickly to clear your inbox.
The best way to do this is by asking yourself – “will this take me less than 2 minutes?”
If so, do it, archive the email and move on.
It’s too easy to move on before taking action because it’s not urgent at the time. But “fast-action” emails can clog up your inbox pretty fast, and what started as one 2-minute action can quickly turn into a big task.
9. Delegate wherever you can
Don’t be afraid to delegate. It’s much better than to leave an email in your inbox for days because you don’t have time to address it.
Think about who, in or outside your team, would be best placed to answer.
Delegating effectively has great benefits. It will free up your time, allow others to develop, and ensure that action is taken fast.
It’s tempting to do everything by yourself but you have to be realistic with your capacity.
Don’t be selfish. Don’t be a bottleneck. Delegate.
10. Create a shortcut to archive your emails
This one goes against the grain but it has saved me a lot of time and energy.
Instead of wasting time categorising emails into folders, I have one single folder called “Archive”. Whenever an email is actioned, I transfer it to Archive. And that’s it. No folder by topic, date etc…
Search functions are so good nowadays that you can find pretty much anything if you know what you’re searching for. Why waste time categorising?
Now the trick to make this more efficient is to create an “Archive” shortcut button so that you don’t have to manually move the email yourself. When you’re ready, click “Archive”, and on to the next one.
11. Set up an “inbox zero” appointment in your calendar
“Inbox zero” is a rigorous email management approach developed by Merlin Mann in which you keep your inbox empty at all times. It’s a great concept but is it realistic?
I don’t think you can ever have a clear inbox if you’re a busy professional. I see “inbox zero” as an ideal, a direction.
With that in mind, I have a 1-hour appointment on my calendar every Friday afternoon called “inbox zero”. During that time, I focus on clearing any leftovers from the week by applying the rules we’ve already covered – Can I do it now? Can I delegate? Do I need to know? Should I defer and add an action to my to-do list?
Then I archive every email until the inbox is virtually empty.
12. Set up automated rules
There will be emails you receive periodically, perhaps reports or newsletters, that you want to keep track of but don’t necessarily want to read as they land in your inbox.
For those, create automated rules to move them to a different folder.
This tackles the issue of emails you don’t want to unsubscribe from “just in case” but don’t want to clog up your inbox.
13. Use templates
Are there emails you send every week with minor changes to the wording? Maybe a report to a distribution list? Or an update on the financials to your boss where only the numbers change?
Wherever you can set up templates to reduce the time it takes to write the email.
Using templates is also faster and cleaner than just tweaking the email you sent last week.
Email Productivity – Part 3: Change Your Mindset
Now that you know how to limit distractions from emails and have started building a system to boost your email productivity, it’s time to talk about mindset.
14. Don’t check your emails when you start work
I think most of us are guilty of checking emails the moment we start work (and often, the moment we wake up!).
The thing is, you are at your most productive in the morning, with untapped mental energy at the ready. Why not focus that energy on your most important work?
Dealing with emails is a reactive task, and can drag you down the rabbit hole for hours.
Instead, think about what you want to work on in the morning at the end of the previous working day. This will prepare you mentally and ensure that you don’t fall into temptation the moment you turn your computer on.
15. Don’t send unnecessary emails
Think twice before sending an email – do you really have to? Are you adding anything to the conversation or are you just showing off? Is there a practical reason why it has to be an email?
The main reasons to send an email are:
- You’re contacting someone in a different time zone
- You’re sharing a file
- You’re sharing sensitive information
- You need to create an audit trail
- You genuinely need to involve a large group and it would be impractical to contact everyone individually (but could you hold a meeting instead?)
16. Don’t “reply all”
Using “reply all” automatically means doing to others what you don’t want them to do to you: clutter their inbox.
At times, replying to all makes sense. It might be a big decision, or you might want to keep an audit trail. Others might need to participate in the conversation.
But do you need to say “thank you” to one person whilst copying 10 others?
I’d argue that most of the time, we don’t think it through. And often, using “reply all” is a way to boost your ego and weigh-in for the sake of it (come on, we’ve all done it…).
Try to change your default to replying only to the sender, with “reply all” as the last resort.
17. Don’t reply to every email
Avoid the back-and-forths by thinking hard about whether or not you need to respond.
Ask yourself whether you are adding value to the conversation. If not, don’t reply, it’s as simple as that.
18. Talk to people instead
A study by professor Albert Mehrabian showed that in human communication, only 7% of the meaning was carried by the actual words used, with 38% in the tone and 55% in the body language.
Now that’s a problem when dealing with emails because you can easily miss the tone and intention of the sender and are more likely to misinterpret the message. So you end up spending your time “prettying up” your emails to compensate for this.
Talking to people is quicker, more effective and helps build better relationships. You can clarify messages and get agreement more easily, and also get stuff done faster by avoiding bottlenecks in email communications.
19. Manage expectations
We’ve talked about how to change the way you deal with emails, but what is equally important is that you let other people know how you work.
Manage their expectations by letting them know that you won’t reply to emails instantly. You can ask them to call you instead for anything genuinely urgent or important.
Another way to manage expectations, if you receive a lot of emails, is by setting an automated response indicating when people can expect to hear back from you.
20. Never delete your emails
Never (ever) delete emails. Archive every single one of them. You never know when an email can become useful.
I know, we all receive junk now and then.
But by adhering to the archiving rule for every single email, you save yourself some mental energy by avoiding having to decide to either delete or archive. It’s all about brain space!
Email productivity should be at the heart of how you work. Emails are not going away, and the volume of information we’re dealing with is not going to decrease, quite the opposite.
So developing email productivity rules and systems to do more with less is a key skill for a successful professional.
I hope these tips were useful and that you start implementing them today to free up some of your time.
How do you manage your inbox? What are your tips?
Let me know in the comments, and please share if you like this post!