7 Tips to Better Manage Email Productivity
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of when the first message was sent from one computer to another. Since its humble beginnings, email has become the most important communication breakthrough of the 20th century. With over 2.6 billion active users and 4.6 billion email accounts in operation (source), email is now deeply embedded in each of our lives. Given this role, it is crucial to effectively manage email productivity.
Despite the maturity of the technology, there is a surprisingly high number of ways people manage this medium. Some techniques help improve productivity; other approaches may not be as effective. Given its ubiquity and importance, I thought it might be helpful to share a few tricks I have learned over the years to manage email productivity. Hopefully, you can take something away as a new trick!
1. Manage Email Productivity by Setting Aside Blocks of Time
The first tip is more of a mental hurdle to consider versus doing anything differently than how you manage your day. We have all worked with people who seem to instantly respond back to any email inquiry, often with a message of “I got your message and will get back to you later” or even some other type of acknowledgement. Then, sometimes they do follow up with you later; sometimes they don’t. In my opinion, this is simply a wasted action. You don’t need to let me know you got my message – respond to the question with the information sought and I’ll know you got it.
More importantly, this type of behavior is indicative of someone who is spending potentially double the time to manage their email. Every time you open an email and read it, there is some processing time involved to refresh yourself what the “ask” is, who is involved, and to then do the work. Sending an acknowledgement email takes time to read the original message. Then, the next day or week when that person has the time to respond, they then need to re-read the message again, wasting time. Not a good way to manage email productivity. As an exception, if you know the request is urgent and can’t respond quickly, a note explaining when you will reply is a good strategy.
2. Brevity is a Virtue
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to various authors, relates to an apology for not having the time to deliver a shorter communication. There is truth to this concept – it does take longer to draft a shorter message. Often that time investment is worth it. This is the case with email. The power of brevity is substantial. I can’t tell you how many emails I have seen that are long with multiple paragraphs, at which point I tell myself I’ll have to find another time to read that one.
There is even an expression related to this concept: TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read). If you get this message, then you are sending too much information in an email!
3. If you Need a Response, Make It Obvious and Ask for It
These are the types of emails where you need a decision made or action taken. This can sometimes be tricky when more than one person is involved. Sometimes people might not be inclined to respond first.
If you are in a situation where you need a confirmed response, then it can be very helpful to include specific instructions in the subject line. This can even be done in ALL CAPS, if you are serious about what specific action is needed. This type of message will stick out in an inbox, and will drive action, once the recipient has an opportunity to read it. Include your “ask” in the first sentence, at the top, to make it obvious what is needed.
4. Keep Messages Grouped by Subject Line
This is a feature that only a couple of years ago became mainstream, now offered on most free cloud-based services. Google groups messages in a thread based on the subject line by default. Outlook offers an option to group by conversation. Threading messages improves efficiency, as it lets you see all the emails in the chain, helping to avoid overlooking a key stakeholder’s opinion that might have been missed (as one example).
There will be those that send a comment relevant to another email string but do so with a different subject line. What happens then is you will have two, three or more groups of subject line responses, often separated across your inbox. This carelessness can be a real productivity blocker, or worse, can lead to improper conclusions based on out-of-date feedback, or responses sent to an incomplete list. Any coaching opportunity that presents itself to share this strategy can help your overall company and team’s productivity.
If possible, a best practice is to assign one (major) topic per subject line, and then go back and find that original email and reply to that specific message with your update (vs. writing another email). The result will be an easy to find history of a decision process, which will help you to save precious time in the future.
5. Establish a Methodology to Share Best Practices
Time spent every day on email is a good indicator of what level of email maturity a sales professional or other employee might have. Assess how you manage email productivity by measuring how long you spend doing email every day.
For example, if you are spending more than 6 hours a day on emails, then that might trigger a couple of questions on what you are doing all day other than responding to emails? Of course, if your job is customer support and you are manning an email inbox, then your “average” day might be to spend it 100% on email, which might be just right.
But, for all others, it is important to keep an eye on the end game. Sales professionals need to sell, so they need to think about what actions can be done every day to move deals forward to closing. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules. I quite often project manage tasks through email, especially when working with a global team in multiple time zones with people outside of the organization. Setting up a workflow or shared project management application makes little sense in some situations whereas email can be a great option.
But, it is best to have a process where your actions and time spent doing activities can be compared with those of your peers. This can work in both ways – if you have found ways to be on email less hours per day, then you might be a great mentor. Knowledge is power. Programs now exist that can help provide insights into time management by application, activity or resources. Applications like Prodoscore can be a significant resource to gain insights to then help manage email communications.
6. Use Folders, Rules and Reminders
All email applications now have an ability to add folders and rules. There is a reason – they work. Of course, too much of a good thing can remove any time savings. Here is an example. I receive a couple of newsletter emails that are helpful to look at when I am doing certain projects, but not every day. I set up a rule to automatically move these newsletters into a folder. Then, I can easily go search for specific articles in the future without being bothered by unnecessary emails clogging up my inbox every day.
Another trick I do is once an email has been responded to, I then move it to my “_Read Emails” folder, which sits at the top of my list (underline key gets it sorted to the top). Then I know the rest of the emails in my inbox have something that needs to be done, so nothing gets missed.
Here is another productivity tip. For those emails that require a response by a certain date, put a reminder flag on them to then appear as an alert when an action is required. This ensures future actions don’t get forgotten, and time is saved not worrying about what was needed to be responded to tomorrow – letting you instead focus on your current task at hand.
7. Don’t Respond to Emails if You Are on Vacation
In closing, how best to manage email productivity when either travelling or out on vacation can have a big impact on how far behind you are when you return to the office. One trick I have found is that if you want to really take time off for a vacation, be diligent and don’t respond to any emails for the next three days. By that time, notice how the volume drops off – people see you really are out on vacation, and the volume will drop significantly. Of course, then when you are back, the volume will come back with a vengeance, but, at least you don’t have to feel as guilty when you are off.
I hope these tips provide helpful insights into how you can improve email productivity. Email is here to stay. If managed correctly, can be an amazing communication tool that retains a conversation history on agreements and decisions. In the global world we live in, it is truly the top communication tool. Take a little time out of your day to compare how you use this critical tool compared to your peers, and you just might find there is another 20 minutes in your day for spending on something else you like, such as perhaps taking a nice drive in your convertible to the beach for a mental break.