How much time do you spend on email every week?
If that number is higher than you’d like it to be, don’t worry: we can help!
But before we dive into these tips and hacks for spending less time on email, let’s address one quick idea. Email has a bad reputation these days; everyone says it’s an evil time-waster and they want to help you eliminate it from your life as much as possible.
I don’t think that’s exactly true. I think email is as good or bad as you make it.
If you feel like you’re losing hours of your day responding to people and wading through irrelevant messages, then yes, you could be due for an inbox refresh.
But email on its own isn’t a bad thing. After all, it’s a great way to save time in other ways — communicating the results of a project, for example, can be done way faster and just as effectively in an email as in a meeting.
It is how we use email that makes it work or not work for us.
So instead of assuming all email is bad, we want you to take a look at how email is working in your life, and then give you some tips for how to make it work even better. Take what you need, and leave what you don’t. Start here.
1. Assess your real email needs and wants first
If you come from a place of “less email is always better”, then you’ll never find a balance that works for you. Email isn’t going away anytime soon, and fighting to make it disappear will only frustrate you (and probably waste more time!).
So instead of focusing on 100% efficiency, focus on RESULTS instead. What do you currently get out of email, and what are you missing?
- What emails benefit you?
- Which ones don’t?
- Who do you need or want to get emails from?
- How often do you immediately archive or delete messages from certain senders without reading?
- How many hours in a day do you spend on email? How do you feel about that amount of time? Why do you feel that way?
- How often does an email sit in your inbox for days or weeks?
- Do you feel like email helps you move the needle forward, or do you feel like it wastes time? Do you feel that way about all emails? Some emails? No emails?
Everyone uses email differently, so it is important to understand your own habits and preferences before you can create a plan that will really work.
2. Reframe the way you think about email
Email often makes us feel busy and important (“look how many people need to hear from me!”) — but if you think about it, the truth is actually the opposite.
When someone sends you an email, they are initiating an attempt to put you on their schedule. They are asking you a question or making a request or even just taking your time to read their message, right now, when you otherwise would not be doing those things.
So if you’re feeling a little hesitant about changing your email routine, maybe this new mindset will help.
The work you do is important; the plans you make for how to spend your time are important. Why do you want to let other people interrupt them?
If you are ready to be the one who decides how you spend your time and to take control of your productivity, then check out the tips below and try a few that might work for your goals.
3. Use tools and strategies that help you achieve your goals
Touch every email just once
How do you end up with 10,000 emails in your inbox? By leaving them there. When the number of emails gets too big it becomes impossible to keep track of the information in your inbox. (For most of us, this happens faster than you’d think! Our brains can only hold so much.)
Instead of leaving messages for later, set a goal to only interact with every email once. Sound hard? It’s actually simple; here’s how to do it.
With every email, you will either:
- Reply as soon as you read it; then delete, archive, or save to a folder
- Delete, archive, or save to a folder right away if no reply is needed
If the message needs a reply, but you don’t have the needed info yet or time to answer (like if an acquaintance writes just to catch up), add the item to your to-do list
- You can either reply right now and let the person know when you’ll get back to them with the answer, OR
- You can archive or folder the email and reply when you have the info or have time to write
- Once you’ve responded to the person’s question, either delete, archive, or save their email to a folder
Create folders for saving emails
Have a hard time parting with emails that could be important later on? Good news: you don’t have to!
I used to hold a ton of emails in my inbox for ongoing projects, each marked with a different colored star or flag — but since there are always ongoing projects PLUS new emails coming in, my inbox was most often a chaotic mess of messages that I ended up needing to do searches on in order to find what I needed.
Instead of holding messages you need to reference in your inbox, give them a home. A folder!
You can organize your folders however you want: by project, by person, by month… Whatever system makes sense to you and will help you have a place for every single email you get is a good system.
The key is to not be left wondering if you should leave an email in your inbox for later; every email should get moved as quickly as possible to a place where it can be stored and searched for later.
If an email doesn’t have an obvious place, create a new folder that applies to it. If you discover there’s confusion or overlap between your folders, simply combine the messages inside to one folder (with a better overarching theme) or split them into multiple, more specific folders.
Answer emails a few times a day, not throughout the day
If you’ve set a precedent that you’re always available by email, then people will write to you with that expectation in mind. However, you can always set a new expectation.
You can do this in two ways:
- Overtly: set an auto-responder that lets anyone who sends you a message know that you only check email a few times a day and it could be a little while before they get a reply
- Subtly: simply put the new policy in place and people will begin to notice that you are taking time to get back to them, and adjust their behavior accordingly
If it is truly urgent, people can usually find another way to get in touch with you like phone, chat, or walking over to your desk. Most emails do not need an immediate reply, and so you don’t need to treat them like they do.
If email is constantly interrupting you, it’s easier to fix than you think. Just close the email client and only open it 3 times a day: morning, noon, and before you leave the office.
Set aside blocks of time for dealing with email and treat it like a task; it’s just another thing you need to get done. It doesn’t run your life or call you away from the things you are working on; you take control and handle it just like any other task.
Use a Sort folder
This is a tip we got from Cal Newport’s Study Hacks blog:
If you’ve got a massive amount of email, it can be hard to process all at once. Instead, use this method to sort messages by topic in a way that’s much more manageable.
Create a folder called “Sort” (or “Organize”, or “Process”, etc). When you’re looking at your inbox full of messages, look for ones on similar topics. Highlight all the messages related to that one topic, and then move them all to your Sort folder.
Once there, you can focus your mind on the one topic and process all of your emails on that topic at once. Reply, archive, delete, add items to your to do list… get all of your emails in one area handled, and then move on to a new topic from your inbox into the Sort folder.
Remove yourself from lists and groups that don’t add value
Be ruthless about the newsletters you allow into your inbox. If you regularly archive or delete something without reading it, unsubscribe. Likewise, if it’s not adding a measurable value to your life (in other words, if you just read it to read it), unsubscribe.
This also goes for work groups, automated reports, etc that you may be receiving. Unless these alerts are adding real value to you, then you should not be having to process the emails.
If you don’t think unsubscribing would be well received by the sender, you can set a filter in your inbox to send all emails from a certain sender (like an email list-serv that sends automatic reports or messages to you) to a specific folder, skipping your inbox altogether. That way you don’t have to unsubscribe, but you also don’t have to process the emails as they come in anymore.
Write outgoing emails more effectively
Do you spend a lot of time writing replies to your emails? This is a huge way that people lose time to their inboxes, and one that most of us aren’t that aware of.
Not only that, but emails that we spend a lot of time on tend to be less focused and effective than they could be. You can fix two problems at once by improving the way you write your emails.
First of all, know the goal of your email before you send it. Are you hoping for an answer to a question? Need the person to take an action? Are you answering a question for them?
When you know WHY you are writing, you will write a way more efficient email — and one that is likely to get an efficient response that you want too.
Once you know the goal of your email, state that goal up front. Put your goal or intention in the subject line and/or first line of your email so that it is crystal clear to the other person what you need.
As you’re writing, ask yourself if every part of your email is serving the goal of the email. If it isn’t, it does not belong in this email. Make a note to talk about that later or to write a separate note for that topic.
Look for opportunities to make your email shorter or more skimmable.
- Can you consolidate similar ideas into one sentence or paragraph?
- Can you create a bullet point list?
- How will you make the goal of the email stand out? Bold text, underline, caps, etc.
- Do you need input from someone else before sending in order for the email to be valuable?
By being more thoughtful and strategic about your email, you will improve the quality of the emails you receive and therefore you’ll spend less time processing emails that go all over the place.
How do you manage your email?
We always love hearing how people make themselves more efficient and productive at work. What are your best tips for being amazing at getting through email? Share them with us on Facebook!