There are a lot of applications out there that are aimed at helping you be more productive, either individually, or as a team. However, there are just as many, or maybe more, that make you unproductive. In today’s day and age, the biggest killer of productivity is email.
In my time sitting a desk in a 9-5 job, I’ve learned a couple of very effective strategies for managing email and the time spent in the inbox.
Use Filters, Categories or Labels
Put together a number of rules that tell you what email is important and what can wait for a rainy day. You will likely be more interested in the emails that are sent only to you, than those that are sent to you because you’re on a distribution list or an email alias. For this reason, you’ll want to mark these messages with something that resonates with you – in Gmail, you could automatically add a star to these emails using filters (Gmail also has a good guess at messages that important to you when you use the Priority Inbox view). In Outlook, use Rules to setup similar automation. I’ve setup Outlook to categorize any email that is sent to me only with a Category called “Me Only”. Then, I use a Filter (which I have saved as a Smart Folder) to show messages that are categorized as “Me Only” and are Unread. This is what I go to when I check my email before I browse the other hundreds of messages in my inbox that are probably not relevant to me.
Close Your Email Program
By far, the most effective productivity tip I can give you regarding email is to simply close it. 99% of us have Outlook or some other email client open all the time and as soon as an email arrives we see the little popup appear in the corner of the screen. Immediately, we are distracted from whatever task we were doing and follow the bouncing ball to open and read the email. From there we have forgotten where we were with the other task and are now flicking through other emails.
When you’ve set yourself a task to complete, eliminate distractions. This means completely shutting down your email program. Let me repeat that. Shut down your email program. Go ahead and do it now – you’ll instantly feel a sense of relief; you’ll feel lighter and have more enthusiasm to get into the next task.
Don’t worry, there’s no such thing as an “urgent” email. If it’s important and you need to know about it right away, you will be notified by phone or in person (this also gives you an opportunity to actually interact with real people, in real-life).
Set Times to be available on Email
Closing your email program doesn’t mean that you’ll stop getting them. It just means they’ll be there waiting for you larter. The longer you leave your email program shut down, the more emails will build up. Set yourself two half-hour blocks throughout the day – I recommend midday and 4pm – to go through your emails. Notice that you don’t actually need to check your emails first thing in the morning. Checking your inbox first thing in the morning is actually a method of procrastination. Leaving your inbox until midday leaves you with a lot more focus when you have a lot more energy. Overnight and on your way to work in the morning, you will no doubt be thinking about what you need to get done. You’re subconsciously building and prioritizing an action plan. I bet “checking email” is not on your action plan… interesting.
Right now you’re probably expected to have you email program open constantly and when someone sends you an email they probably expect a response right away. Don’t worry, they will soon learn that if they email you, they can expect to wait a little while for a reply. If it’s really important and they need an answer right away… guess what, they will phone you or stand behind your desk and talk to you. Perfect!
Setup an Auto-Responder
Getting the message out about your new email strategy can take time and some colleagues may find it a bit frustrating at first when they don’t hear from you as soon as they send their email to you. In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris suggests setting up an auto-responder that reads something like the following:
Hi and thanks for your message!
In an effort to increase productivity and efficiency I am beginning a new personal email policy. I’ve recently realized I spend more time shuffling through my inbox and less time focused on the task at hand. It has become an unnecessary distraction that ultimately creates longer lead times on my ever-growing ‘to do’ list.
Going forward I will only be checking/responding to email at 12pm and 4pm on weekdays. I will try to respond to your email in a timely manner.
If you need an immediate time-sensitive response… please don’t hesitate to call me. Phones are more fun anyways.
Make sure this response goes out for every email you receive. A cleverly worded message like this encourages people to respect your time and send you less superfluous emails.
Managing your email activity is a very effective way to become more productive. It’s simple and highly effective. If you haven’t tried this yet, give it a go and leave your experience in the comments below. It’s hard to master the discipline to leave your email program closed until midday and then close it again until the afternoon, but once you’re over that hurdle you will feel back in control of your day.