I’ve been inundated with email lately from the various areas of my life, including my law practice, The Productive Woman podcast, and personal stuff. I like email because I use it as a mechanism to communicate and I especially love getting emails from listeners, but I have lots of other stuff coming in as well and it gets hard to stay on top of it. So I thought I’d do a little research to find out ways to get a handle on it and share my findings with you.
Making the Best of Email
One study done by Gloria Mark shows we check our email an average of 74 times a day!
A September 2017 article on email statistics says, “Globally a staggering 269 billion emails are sent each day and there are currently just over 3.7 billion email users worldwide.” The same article says the average office worker receives 121 emails a day. Another article says that’s expected to reach 140 per day in 2018. Both of these articles are only talking about statistics for business emails and doesn’t count personal emails.
So what are some ways we can get email under control and manage it so that it becomes a tool and not a headache?
I have multiple email accounts: one for my law practice, a couple for The Productive Woman, personal Yahoo and Gmail accounts, and a couple others for other purposes. I am considering simplifying and consolidating some of these accounts to reduce the number of sources. Another possibility to simplify email is to have it feed into one source, which is the Apple mail for me.
There are certainly benefits of having separate accounts for different categories of your life such as work/business, friends/family, and an account used only for signing up for newsletters and accounts.
Another way to simplify your email is to have fewer folders or a simpler filing system. Instead of having a folder for each project or topic, consider having fewer folders and use the search function. Perhaps start with folders for Action, Waiting For, and perhaps Reference, with all other emails going into an Archive folder.
2. Turn off alerts
Turn off both the sound and flag icon alerts on your phone and computer. These are sources of distractions more than anything else. Even if you don’t look at the email when you’re alerted, just the fact that you’ve been alerted distracts your attention from the work you’re doing, even if it’s only momentarily, and it takes a few seconds to get back to the level of focus you were at before. I encourage you to take control over when your email will have your attention.
3. Close your email
If possible, close your email and only open it at set times each day. Many productivity experts suggest that you only open your email twice a day. If that works for you, that’s great! That would not work well for me because I need to be reachable and be made aware when communication comes in. In my case, then, instead of opening my email certain times a day, I close it at certain times a day, so I can focus on the task at hand.
Definitely consider not opening your email in the morning until you’ve spent an hour on your most important priority project. I’ve heard it said that emails are someone else’s priority for your time rather than it being your priority. Maybe your job requires you to be responsive to that, in which case you can try what I do. If you avoid checking email first thing in the morning, you avoid letting the messages there set the tone for your day.
Once you’ve spent time working on your priority project, check your email using an email processing routine.
- Set a timer or alarm
- Start with oldest first and work your way to most current, but skim the inbox to check for threads in case an earlier email is superseded or rendered moot by another email that came later.
- Follow the 2-minute rule: If you can reply in 2 minutes or less, do it immediately.
- Delete what you can
- Create an Action folder for items that will require more than 2 minutes to reply and add a reminder to your to-do list or just create a task directly from the email (e.g., OmniFocus, Nozbe, Todoist all give you an email address to which you can forward emails to create a task)
4. Limit email time
Like everything else, email can expand to fit the time made available to it. Instead of figuring out how long it will take to go through your email, decide how much time you will spend on it. Set a timer and when it rings, close your email even if you haven’t finished everything. If you have regularly scheduled time for processing your email, you’ll get back to it and pick up where you left off. With consistent attention, eventually you’ll catch up and clear it out.
5. Use the “out of office” function
Utilize the automatic reply function to manage expectations about when you’re going to respond even when you’re in the office. Add a polite message such as “Thank you for reaching out to me. I’m in a busy season at work and my response time may be delayed. I will reply to your email as soon as I’m able.”
6. Get help
- Use a trusted assistant, intern, secretary, or VA to triage your email. Give them access to your email and train them to sort, delete, and reply to messages that don’t require immediate responses.
- Use email sorting services like:
Unsubscribe frequently and liberally to any newsletters (including mine if it’s not adding value to you or if you don’t have time to read it). You can always re-subscribe later when time permits.
8. Be smart about the emails you send
- Make good use of the subject line:
- Make it descriptive (for your sake for finding it later as well as for the recipient)
- Change the subject line when you reply
- Don’t use email for scheduling (especially with more than one other person)
- Jump on a phone call (might be the best means of communication for other things as well)
- Schedule with Doodle
9. Process email regularly
Have no more emails in your inbox than you can see without scrolling.
- “Organize mail using folders like “Action,” “Waiting,” and “Archives,” And when you do check mail, use the two-minute rule – immediately handle any email that you can read and respond to in two minutes or less.” (from “Managing Email Effectively”)
- Tools that can help:
- SimplyFile for Outlook
- Tagging and filters for Gmail
- Rules for Apple Mail (and others)
- Use the delete button liberally
10. Declare email bankruptcy
If things have gotten completely out of control and you have hundreds of unread emails going back months, consider declaring “email bankruptcy” which means delete everything that’s unread on the assumption that if it’s important they’ll contact you again.
If you’re worried that there will be emails you can’t risk deleting, here’s an alternative: Move everything from your inbox to a “To Process” folder. Use your first email time each day going forward to process what’s in your inbox. Schedule regular time, just 15 minutes a day, to go into the “To Process” folder and process from oldest to newest. Respond, delete, or file/archive.
Take charge of your email
Email is an important part of my business and a valuable way to stay in touch with others, but it’s also important to think of it as somebody else’s priorities for you. To be productive (to make a life that matters) we need to set priorities intentionally and not just react to what shows up in your email inbox.
What do you think?
Is email an issue for you? Or have you found a system that works to keep it under control? Please share them in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- You Aren’t Imagining It: Email Is Making You More Stressed Out
- Emails expected to rise to 140 a day in 2018
- Managing Email Effectively
Announcements and Reminders
- Can I help you create a plan for managing your email or for achieving your most important goals? Visit the Work with Me page of the website to learn more about The Productive Woman Mastermind groups and personalized productivity coaching. Questions? Email me!
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