Use your email like a pro!
We’ve covered a lot of ground to date in this series of posts about email excellence. I’ve discussed strategies on how to:
- Build a simple email folder structure to save you a ton of time
- Organise your email folders and free up your time
- Handle your incoming emails and empty your inbox in no time
- Drastically reduce email overload
If you have put in place only a few of the strategies described in those posts, you’ll already have reduced the time and energy you spend in your inbox every day. Now it’s time to take your email excellence to the next level. These 10 tips will boost your personal productivity even further, relieving email stress and helping you to focus your time and energy effectively.
1. Operate the ‘Waiting For’ rule
Tracking the messages that are waiting for a response – before you can either put the email to bed or take a follow-on action – can be a nightmare. I had one client who used to keep handwritten notes just to remind him of the responses he was waiting for! Each day he’d read through his manual records, then search through his emails, re-read the email, and (nine times out of ten) do nothing, other than update his manual records.
Many others have no system at all. They rely on their memory. A bad strategy, because forgetfulness is a human failing that affects us all.
I showed my client how to use this simple ‘Waiting For’ rule:
- Create a ‘Waiting For’ folder in your email archive
- On every email that you send – and if a response is required – add the text [your initials] under your email signature. In my case, I add [rwq]. Always include the square brackets, or something similar, because that makes it unique.
- Create a filter that copies every message you send (sender = you) and which includes the text [your initials] in the body to your ‘Waiting For’ folder.
This takes automatic care of all the messages that need responses and which you send.
There will be times when you receive a message that delegates a task to a third person, who is then to report to you. For example, let’s say that your manager asks one of your colleagues to perform a task and report to you when completed. Such emails will not include [your initials] in the text body. These will have to be dealt with manually:
- Place a copy of the message into the ‘Waiting For’ folder.
- Archive the email as appropriate.
- When your colleague reports the task as complete, delete the email from the ‘Waiting For’ folder. This can be done when doing your maintenance – see tip 7 below.
2. Use your email search functionality
This is a ‘trick’ which very few people use, but will save you a huge amount of time. When you are trying to find information on the web, you will use a search engine like Google. Yet most people will trawl through hundreds of emails and dozens of archive folders, wasting huge amounts of time and energy, to find a single email. An IBM study found that it takes an average of 17 seconds to find an email by using a search facility, and 58 seconds to find via folders.
Instead of using such a wasteful and laborious method, use your email application’s search engine:
- Search all your folders and all your emails in one click
- Input either: the sender (or recipient) name; date (or date range); keyword (or phrase).
- Click ‘search’.
Voila! This easy method will find 95% of all ‘lost’ emails. You will see where they are in your archive folders, and be able to access immediately (okay, within a few seconds). For the remaining 5%, try combining the above-mentioned inputs, or add other search criteria such as ‘with or without attachments’, to make your search even more targeted.
This one tip alone will save you enormous amounts of time and frustration. How do I know? Because before I discovered the email search function on my email application, I could spend 5 or 10 minutes trying to find an email. Now, I spend no more than 20 seconds before I’ve found the email I’m looking for.
3. Remove email distractions
Distractions are the number one reason for decreased productivity, and there are a lot of them surrounding us in the modern home and workplace. Email can be one of the worst offenders. When working:
- Turn off all email notifications (those annoying buzzes, bells, alarms and pop-ups) on your computer and your mobile phone.
- If your computer or laptop has an ‘unread emails counter icon’, turn this off, too.
- Best of all, log out of your email while you’re working and batch check it twice a day.
4. Learn your email application shortcuts and use them
We take shortcuts because they save time and energy. You’ll find the quickest way to travel to work. You’ll find the easiest way to perform a task. You get the picture. Your email application has a load of inbuilt shortcuts, all of which reduce effort and time. Learn these shortcuts. It may take a while to do so, but the effort will be well worth it.
Once you’ve learned the shortcuts, it’s like shifting gears in your car. You don’t need to look where the gear stick is, nor where the gears are located.
Learn the shortcuts for the following actions, and speed up your email processing
- Browsing through your emails (often done with the arrows)
- Formatting shortcuts (underline / bold / italic / font size)
- New email
- Access the search functionality
- Go to inbox…
- Go to folder…
- New email
- Copy to folder…
- Move to folder…
- Archive (= move to Archive)
5. Integrate your email with your calendar and task manager
If you aren’t already, use the same system for your email, calendar and task manager. Perhaps the most popular is Microsoft Outlook. Many email applications also allow third party task manager and diary applications to integrate with them. This means you don’t need to keep switching between different applications, and can create tasks and calendar items seamlessly while working through your Inbox.
6. Process emails in batches
People who remain logged into their email account all day tend to continuously scan it for new emails. This is the height of email inefficiency. It wastes huge amounts of time. Instead, process your emails in batches, only twice or three times per day.
Follow the four-step email handling process I described in my post How to handle your incoming emails and empty your inbox in no time. Strive for an empty Inbox once at least once per day.
7. Remember that your emails must be maintained
Whether it’s your car, house or garden, maintenance is required to keep it in tip-top condition. Every two or three days (a week at the most), undertake the following email maintenance:
- Check messages in your ‘Waiting For’ folder. Delete if they are no longer relevant. Send reminders if needed.
- Check the ‘Calendar Items’ and Action Items’ folders. Delete as necessary.
- Make sure you have returned to Inbox Zero, following the procedure in my post, How to handle your incoming emails and empty your inbox in no time.
8. Ask yourself, “Is this email really important?”
Your inbox is a task list that everyone can write on! All they need is your email address. When you consider your inbox like this, you’ll see how crazy your email life could become. If you are not careful, you risk your email inbox being flooded with ‘junk’ that is important for just one person – the sender! Here’s how to nip this risk before other people take over your inbox:
- When you review your emails, always ask yourself how important each individual email is to you. Be prepared to reply to the sender and say that you can’t help them.
- You are not obliged to explain why you can’t help the sender, but if you do feel the need to, tell them that you are limited on time and that the request doesn’t fit in with your current priorities.
- Remember, there are numerous ways to say no. You don’t have to be offensive or rude. There are lots of ways to say no in a positive way. And remember, saying no to someone else is saying yes to yourself.
9. Ask yourself, "Am I the best person to perform this task?"
Everyone gets asked to do tasks for which they are not best suited. It may be that someone else you know could do the task better, or in half the time. Or perhaps you simply don’t have the skills, knowledge, or time to complete a request.
Delegate such tasks to someone else, or reply to the sender and tell them that you are not the best person for the task.
10. Change your email mindset
It’s easy to fall into the trap and consider all email as urgent. It’s not. In fact, not a single email is urgent. If a request or message was urgent, the sender should use a more instantaneous method of communication – there are plenty available (e.g. instant messengers, SMS and texts, Skype and mobile phones, to name a few).
Let people know that you will reply to emails within 24 hours. It may be quicker; it will never be slower.
Don’t become involved in email discussions. Not only will these take up more of your valuable time, but you will also miss all nonverbal communication (body language), which become increasingly important in longer discussions.
When checking and reviewing your email inbox, make sure you do only that. Process your emails, and organise them into their respective folders. Close your email and get to work. Never work on a task from an email while in email processing mode.
Finally, I want to re-emphasise that not every email is important to you. It is only important to the sender. There is no obligation for you to take responsibility for every task sent to you by email.
These 10 tips will help you shift from first gear to fifth gear of email excellence. You’ll spend less time in your inbox. The time and effort you waste in your inbox will be halved, and then halved again. You’ll be email excellent, achieve more, and be better than ever!