6 Ways to Improve Your E-Mail Habits for a More Productive and Stress Free Workday
In today´s society, everyone is busy. Busy can be a good thing, but not if busy is (partly) a result of being distracted by incoming e-mails, begging for your attention several times every single hour. Many of the e-mails we receive are obviously important, but a very large chunk is also just “FYI´s”, newsletter subscriptions, and messages of other non-urgent matters.
The average time it takes to get back to a task after an interruption, is about 25 minutes. This means that if you´re right in the middle of something and receive an e-mail notification, and then proceed to open and read that e-mail, you might end up losing 25 minutes of productivity. If this turns out to be a non-urgent e-mail (which it typically will be, applying “urgent” sparingly), this can be particularly unproductive.
Over the past couple of months, I´ve invested some time into a spring cleaning of my inbox and e-mail routines. It takes a little bit of time to set up, and some of the moves might be uncomfortable to begin with (i.e. if you´re used to a fast-paced environment with clients, having to be “on” 100% of the time), but trust me; incorporating these elements into your e-mail routine will change your workday for the better:
Organize Your Inbox In Folders
This one is self-explanatory, and probably something many of you already do. Create as many or as few folders you need to feel organized. Be diligent about always moving items from your inbox into their respective folders after you have read them and, if necessary, made any required action or reply. Aim for “inbox zero”.
Auto-Sort Your E-Mails
Have you ever been in a project where you’re always cc´d on e-mails going back and forth, but there’s not really anything you need to know about or respond to right away? This has basically been the story of my life for the past year, and as such, this hack has led to a significant increase in focus, despite only auto-sorting my e-mails into two additional categories: “CC” and “Newsletters”.
If you’re on CC, the e-mail is usually just an “FYI” or a “nice to know” e-mail. If you are required to take action, or there is something that´s urgent to you personally, you are most likely addressed in the recipient field. You don´t want these messages cluttering up your inbox.
I am currently leading an extensive project with many parties involved, and there are endless discussions on detailed technical matters that I would like to be informed about, but not receive as interruptions throughout my workday. After setting up my e-mail rules, the amount of e-mails that goes straight to my inbox has been cut to a fraction of what it used to be.
Personally, I usually open and skim through my CC folder once a day, and my Newsletters folder whenever I have time or need a break from focused work. For my CC folder, I immediately move the e-mails to their respective folders after reading, so that this one clears out as well – just as I do with my inbox.
To set this up, you have to create rules in your inbox; this should be relatively straightforward in the most common e-mail programs such as Gmail and Outlook. If you can´t figure it out, I´m sure Google can be helpful.
Set Aside Time To Read And Respond To E-Mails
The logic here goes hand in hand with point two above: to the extent possible, you want to dictate your own workday without interruptions. This means picking your own times to read your e-mails and following up on them.
The most diligent individuals within this practice checks their e-mail once or twice a day. I am aware that this is easier said than done for some (i.e. if you´re dealing with a demanding boss or clients who are expecting a rapid response), but even a moderate version of this practice can yield great results in terms of productivity.
Most people corresponding by e-mail don´t expect an immediate reaction, but rather to get a response within a day or two, or even later. Use this to your advantage. Decide on some set times throughout the day to check and follow up on incoming e-mails, (i.e. every two hours). If someone needs your instant attention, they are likely to call or text you to make you aware of this.
Turn Off Notifications
This will make the points listed above way easier to stick to. We live in an age where everyone seems to have a very limited attention span, and one notification popping up on your smartphone or computer screen may be enough to get you distracted and drop out of your productive flow. Your legal advisor e-mailing you, asking whether you have had the time to read through the documents she sent you last week, is not worth potentially losing 25 minutes of productivity.
This point goes for other notifications as well; all app notifications that may pop up on your computer and/or smartphone screen should be switched off for maximum productivity.
Make A Conscious Decision About Every E-Mail That Arrives In Your Inbox
Sometimes we end up receiving newsletters that we once subscribed to, but never really read. We often tend to delete these from our inbox without ever opening them because it´s the quick and easy way to get it out of sight. Other times, we keep them unopened in our inbox, hoping to get to read them later.
Next time you get one of these e-mails, be honest with yourself: Is this a newsletter you´re ever going to prioritize taking the time to read, and/or care about? Do you need to know every time your favorite shop has a campaign or new arrivals? Will this newsletter provide you with any useful information, inspire you, or make you happy in the future? If your answer is no to these questions, do yourself a favor and unsubscribe sooner rather than later.
Don´T Check E-Mails After You´Ve Left The Office
This one is particularly important if you´re dealing with clients, or other demanding concerns. Bad news or complex issues can show up seemingly out of nowhere, and if you can´t/won´t deal with it properly until you make it to the office the next day (hint: you shouldn´t), there is no good reason to potentially ruin your evening and/or build up anxiety by checking your inbox in the late PM.
It´s never easy to break out of bad habits. However, for something that consumes so much of our time and energy as e-mails do, applying these tips can be a total game changer, both in terms of productivity, and in terms of stress levels. To me, it´s made a massive difference, and I know other people who have applied some or all of these points with great results as well. So just go for it. Take the time to implement these habits and rules to your inbox. You´ll thank me later.
[Please feel free to share your thoughts and reflections in the comments section]