Email is one of the biggest productivity sucks I can think of. We can become chained to it. In fact – we are chained to it for, on average, 13 hours per week.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a friend who couldn’t work out whether or not he was pleased or pained that there was no wifi signal in his downstairs toilet. Why? “It means I can’t check my email, which on the one hand is a blessing, but on the other hand, I have a few quiet moments and I could use them to catch up…”
When you get to that point with email, I think you’ve got to acknowledge that things are getting out of control.
There are nearly 2.6 billion email users worldwide – over one third of the world’s population will be using email by 2019. People have, on average, 2 email accounts. In 2015, the total number of emails sent and received per day equalled over 205 billion. And this number is predicted to grow. The average number of business emails sent and received per day per user totals over 120. This figure is also expected to grow.
If it took you one minute – on average – to process each email, that’s two hours of your working day. Every day.
Email clearly isn’t going away anytime soon – it remains an important and useful tool for business communication. But, if you are not going to get swamped by the rising tide, you’ve got to get smarter about how you use email.
I remember a time when I spent most of my working day within the confines of Outlook. And I got literally nothing done.
These days I manage to keep my email – most of the time – under control. I manage to reach inbox = zero most days of the week. And I touch the majority of my email messages once and once only.
So, here are five hacks to stay on top of email.
1. Turn off all notifications.
Email doesn’t need to be an instant communication medium. There are plenty of others. Check your email when you choose. Choose scheduled times of the day. Dramatically reduce the number of times you check in – I’d recommend from the average 15 down to 3 or 4 maximum.
If you need to let your team-mates or customers know this, use an auto-responder. There may be some roles where you simply must be instantly available through email, but if you think this might be you I’d urge you to think long and hard before you conclude it is.
2. Use an alternative channel for ‘live’ conversations with close contacts.
I use iMessage throughout the day to keep in touch with my family and friends. I use Slack to keep in touch with my colleagues and team-mates. If anyone outside of my company needs me urgently, they can phone me.
3. Don’t use complicated folder structures.
I have basically two folders in my email. My inbox and a ‘processed mail’ folder. Once it’s dealt with, it goes straight into the processed mail folder. You can waste hours (and I once did) trying to work out which folder a message should be filed into. Or whether or not you need create a new folder, or sub-folder, or set of sub-folders. And what if that email needs to go into, say, ‘finance’ AND ‘reports’? Where will you put it? What if you go looking for it in the other one three months later?
Guess what? The search functionality on modern email applications is so good that you don’t need to worry about it. File everything in a ‘processed mail’ folder and use your email search to get back to it when you need it.
4. Use an app that makes things easier.
I’ve recently started using Spark on my iPhone and iPad. And it’s fantastic – well worth the small investment. Why?
- Spark works across multiple email accounts and filters your incoming mail into streams – personal, newsletters, notifications – so that you can batch process really easily
- You can pin important messages to the top of your inbox (from any account) and use customisable swipes to work through your inbox really quickly.
- It integrates brilliantly with iOS and other apps.
- It’s got a nice ‘reminder’ function. You can set a time for the email to pop back into your inbox – at a time when you know you will want or need to deal with it – but get it into your processed mail folder and out of your inbox for now. I’ve just starting using this and I like it.
I’ve recently switched back to using the Gmail app inside of Chrome on my Macbook. Apple Mail looks lovely, but the search function just isn’t good enough. On the other hand, Gmail:
- Has phenomenal search
- Integrates beautifully with Google Drive and other Google Apps (we use Google Apps for Work at ThinkWinDo)
- Integrates brilliantly with Nimble, our CRM system – enabling us to see (or harvest) rich contact data from within an email
5. Touch email once only.
Move it straight into the right place:
- If it doesn’t require a response, I file it straight away.
- If it requires a response, I respond and then file it straight away.
- If the email is a prompt to action, then I forward the email (changing the subject header appropriately) straight to Nozbe – my task manager – so I can process it in there
- If the email contains a file or information that I need to retain, I get it straight out of my email and into the relevant data-store (usually Evernote or Google Drive or both, in my case). Spark integrates really nicely with both of these. Gmail – obviously – integrates seamlessly with Google Drive and, I understand, will soon with Evernote
Do I stick to these rules all of the time? No, old habits die hard and email can be an insistent mistress. But, I try really hard to think my way through using email, so that I’m in charge rather than the other way around. If you’re overwhelmed by email, try some of these tricks – I’d love to know if they help.
Which of these tactics do you think would be most helpful and why?
Are you an email ninja? Share some of your best hacks!
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