Email Productivity Tips. Ideas you can use NOW to make your life better!

Is email overload driving you crazy? Do you, like most knowledge workers, receive 50–300 messages a day? The hopeless rat race to clear the Inbox is the #1 source of stress and misery in the modern workplace…

I’ve heard people say there’s nothing to be done, but I beg to differ. In 18 years of working on this problem I’ve seen countless tips and solutions; here I share the few that top my list for simplicity and effectiveness. Go ahead and try them – you’ll discover there’s more to life than the Inbox!

Help for the struggle with email overload
Nathan’s top email tips for individuals

Tip #1

If you only take away one tip, let it be this one!

Only read incoming mail in a few fixed time slots daily.

Why: Checking email every few minutes is a huge killer of productivity and peace of mind. The ceaseless interruption of your concentration has grim effects on the quality, quantity and creativity of your work output. By assigning dedicated “email times” you safeguard the rest of the day as “focus time” to think, create, and execute at your best. Do it!

How: Set aside 1–2 predefined slots to clear your Inbox – the same ones every day, preferably at those times of the day when you are least creative. For instance, you might choose an hour at 8AM (to see what came in from other time zones while you were sleeping), and an hour or two after lunch. Whatever works for you – as long as you stick to it without compromise. Check this post for some advice on how to pull it off without annoying your customers or coworkers.

And don’t wail “but what if someone needs to contact me urgently between slots??!?” – that’s what telephones, IM, and SMS are for, remember?

Tip #2

Turn off all incoming email alerts.

Why: Email is not SMS. You need to check it when you want to, not when it chooses to come in (see Tip #1). Even if you decide to ignore the alerts, don’t kid yourself: their very presence will distract you and kill your concentration every few minutes, putting you in the mode of “Continuous Partial Attention”.

How: The details vary, but every mail program has settings that allow you to silence the various pop-ups, bleeps and animations for incoming mail. Yes, on your mobile device too! In MS Outlook it’s under Tools > Options > Email options > Advanced. Go in there and stop the onslaught of interruptions. Do it!

Tip #3:

Never use your Inbox as a To Do list.

Why: Never keep read messages in the Inbox just to remind yourself to do something later – there are far better task management tools for that. Move all read messages to folders (or the trash). A flooded Inbox can obscure important messages and is depressing to boot.

How: The basic rule is, open each message only once. Once you’ve read it, process and move it immediately – respond to it, delete it, delegate it, file it in a folder, or put it in a “To do later” folder… at a minimum you can have folders like “To Do today”,  “To Do later”, maybe even “To read when I have time” (good luck on that one!) – just don’t leave the message where it was!

Of course, there are more sophisticated tools to manage all this – for example, you may want to try out add-ons for MS Outlook like ClearContext. Check the Definitive Guide for the many available tools in this space!

Tip #4:

Nathan’s “Five Weeks” folder method.

Why: With scores of messages a day, even a few seconds of hesitation over whether to delete a message will add up. We need to delete decisively; yet we all agonize: what if I’ll need this later?… What if the sender calls me about it tomorrow?… This method, which I invented ages ago, completely solves this problem. Give it a try!

How: Create a folder named “Five Weeks”. Make its auto-archiving behavior “delete any message older than 5 weeks” (why five? so you always have the latest version of items that come in monthly). Or you can clean it up manually every few weeks.

Now, when you clear your Inbox, every time you hesitate for more than 2 seconds whether or not to delete a message, just stick it in “Five Weeks”. No need to agonize – it’s still there if the sender calls next week… and in 5 weeks you won’t remember it anyway!

Nathan’s top email etiquette norms for teams

Tips for Individuals are easy; it’s when you get to the team level that things get complicated. Here we need etiquette, i.e. we need people to invest in writing fewer, clearer emails that their coworkers can process faster. It takes a mature team to express such altruism! Here are some ideas for norms you can adopt across your team to good effect:

  • Make your messages short and sweet.
    Include a descriptive subject line, focused body, and explicitly noted action items (who should do what by when). And if it’s a long one, add a Management Summary at the top!

  • Put thought into the Quality of your messages.
    This investment is tough in today’s hurried workplace, but can save much time and trouble later. Re-read the message before clicking SEND: ensure that the wording is unambiguous, that the tone is right for conveying your intent, that the language is polite and respectful of your recipient. And if it’s an emotional message, save a draft and re-read it the next day – never send an email out in a moment of anger!

  • Keep distribution lists to a minimum; drop unneeded names when you reply to a message.
    Tip: Think long and hard before hitting that Reply to All button!

  • Standardize across your group on agreed Email Hashtags (e.g. #Hot, #FYI, #Action).
    These go in the subject line to help recipients prioritize their Inbox at a glance.
    For example: Subject: #Hot #Action I really need your comments on these slides today!

  • Put short messages in the subject line – end with <EOM> (that’s End of Message)
    Example: Subject: Today’s staff meeting is canceled <EOM>

  • Use To/CC/BCC correctly.
    To = Reply/Action expected. CC = No reply expected.
    Avoid using BCC (except for mass mailings, where it prevents Reply All blunders).

  • Know when it’s time to just pick up the phone!
    Avoid long threads – after a few back and forths set a meeting or just call the guy.

  • Provide feedback to senders so they improve their ways.
    For example: Thanks, but in the future please don’t send me these reports.

  • Be mindful of your recipients’ time!
    Never send people an 80-slide PowerPoint attachment unless you guide them with something like “John, read slides 23-25; Mary, you will find the last 10 slides relate to your research;…”.

Of course, these are good rules to follow even when sending email outside of your team!

Fighting Information Overload – a battle guide for managers

If you manage a group of any size, you play a key role in stopping email overload in it. This is because a major cause of unnecessary emails is perceptions and implicit expectations in the culture of your organization; and changes in these must be led from the top. For instance, the above team etiquette ideas will fail to be adopted unless you lead their adoption by firm role modeling and coaching.

Having worked with numerous groups to facilitate such a change, I can share some guidelines:

  • Take leadership.
    Declare a formal process for reducing email overload, with yourself as its sponsor. You don’t have to personally drive the details – you can delegate that role – but your clear commitment to make a change happen is crucial. If you don’t plan to walk this talk, don’t even get it started: employees can detect this sort of thing instantly. Seen it happen…

  • Involve the employee base in the process right from the start.
    Populate the project team with reps from diverse levels and areas of your organization.

  • Start with learning what you’re up against.
    Run a survey to characterize the extent, nature and causes of the email problem in your group. These depend strongly on company culture; you need to know your problem before you can optimize solutions.

  • Take culture seriously.
    Avoid the temptation to edict a few etiquette rules (“Don’t Reply All”) and call it a day. You need to understand the underlying behavioral and cultural causes. Then you need to address them, taking great care that your actions are in synch with your company’s “Organizational DNA”.  Expect a sometimes uncomfortable but always fascinating journey.

  • Go beyond the workplace.
    Your people are doing email at home, at nights, weekends, vacations… they feel any message needs an immediate reply. This is bad for their life and bad for your business. And it doesn’t matter that you never ordered this: they certainly believe it’s expected. Changing this expectation will be very difficult yet highly beneficial.

  • Be patient and persistent.
    Behavior and culture changes require time to take hold – many months – and then need sustaining and monitoring. Short-term “Launch and Forget” solutions can bring some relief, but they miss the greater opportunities for improvement.

Daunting? Perhaps, but with your knowledge workers likely wasting one day per week on information overload (as shown here), and suffering perpetual stress and misery from it, this is well worth your effort. You are, after all, their manager!

If you require assistance with any of this, we can help – it’s what we do!