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Increase Your Email Productivity

(Contributed by reader, Emma Dutton)

Email is a hugely convenient way of staying in touch with personal and professional contact but while it can be a huge boost to productivity, it can also be a huge detriment, too. Like most things, it all comes down to how you use it. Does email rule your life, or do you have control over your email habits?

Studies show that up to a third of the average employee’s time is spent—or wasted—on tasks that relate to email, at a global cost of $650 billion a year, mostly because they’re sending and actioning email inefficiently or unnecessarily To effectively solve this problem, it’s first important to have a productive email management system, one that allows you to take total control of how your inbox is set up, and how it processes and files new messages. If you’re able to set up your inbox in a way that facilitates an organized approach to checking and actioning email, the problem is already halfway to being solved. The second key, of course, is in practicing effective and efficient emailing habits, and this is where the difficulty lies for most people. So what are the most efficient ways to handle the daily deluge of email messages that so many of us face?

Making Your Inbox Work for You

The first step on the road to email productivity is getting to grips with your email client—it’s crucial to thoroughly understand the tools you’re working with if you’re going to make them work effectively for you. Depending on the email client you use, there are dozens of quick and simple hacks that will make your inbox easier to navigate.

  • Create folders for “current” emails—those that require an action, and those that relate to projects you’re currently working on.

  • Create multiple email signatures tailored to colleagues, customers, and clients. The utility of this depends on your job, but it can be useful if you’re someone who wears many ‘hats.’

  • If your client allows it (Gmail does, for example), you can alter your settings to that you can choose to automatically archive an email once you reply to it—an easy way to make clearing your inbox a little faster.

  • Filter out low-priority messages using email rules. For example, for emails you’re only copied on, rather than being an addressee, create a rule that sends them to their own separate folder. You can do the same thing on an individual basis for specific email addresses—for example, for anything that isn’t work-related.

  • Minimize folder usage. Searching your email archive is vastly faster than it once was, and most people can get away with using just a small handful of folders—one for current emails, one for low-priority emails, and one for trash.

Efficient Email Habits

Everyone has their own strategy for dealing with email, but there are a few things that typically work well for everyone.

Most importantly, turn off email notifications—all of them. Stopping what you’re doing to immediately read every single email as it comes in may make you feel like you’re efficient and top of things, but it’s a false sense of efficiency. The average employee takes 23 minutes to get back on track after being interrupted, and if you’re stopping constantly to read new email, that’s a lot of interruptions. Instead, check email every hour, or two hours, and commit at that time to clearing your inbox. Make the final check at the end of the working day, so that your inbox is clear when you leave.

Next, the inbox-clearing itself. Back when every document was on paper, instead of on a computer, the go-to efficiency strategy was to deal with each piece of paper as it arrived: action, delegate, defer, delete, or file. This strategy works just as well for email as it did for paper, and it’s by far the best way to keep your inbox clear.

Writing Efficient Emails

Using email productively isn’t just about how good you are at reading and actioning the messages you receive; it’s also about how good you are at writing effective messages. Do you spend an excessive amount of time writing emails, or can you write them quickly? Are your emails easy to read and understand, or do you have a hard time expressing what you mean?

If writing emails isn’t one of your strong points, there are two potential solutions. Employing either or both can help you get a good handle on writing clearly and effectively.

  • Stick to one subject per email. This helps you write more effectively, and it also makes it easier to locate specific email conversations in the future.

  • Write emails using bullet points. Don’t worry about writing perfect paragraphs, just state your main points as succinctly as you can.

  • If you can’t effectively write what you need to say using these methods, consider whether email is the best medium for the message.

Is Email Always the Best Solution?

The final key to email productivity is recognizing that email isn’t always the fastest way to communicate with someone. If you need to ask something of a colleague, emailing isn’t necessarily the way to go—especially if it’s a complex question, or if you have several different things to talk about. Instead, it’s sometimes much more efficient to use an ‘old-fashioned’ method of communication, like a phone call or a face-to-face chat.