Managing Your Email: Stop the Email Madness!

Remember when email was heralded at a way to get more done in less time? Now, many people find that they’re spending so much time reading and responding to emails that they don’t have time to do anything else. In fact, one study shows that we spend 28 percent of our workweeks reading, writing or responding to email.

Email can be a major distraction and a big time waster, but it seems like we can’t live without it anymore. What’s a busy person to do? Here are a few suggestions on how to regain control of your time and increase efficiency by managing your email.

Stop the knee-jerk response

It’s hard to stay focused on important tasks when you’re constantly being interrupted by incoming messages. Unless you’re a doctor on call, those emails can wait until it’s convenient for you.

  • Turn off audible and visual alerts on your computer and smart phone so you won’t be tempted to check your email “just in case.” If it’s really vital, they’ll call you on the phone.
  • Set up times to handle emails: for example, every two hours, or after a long period of concentration when you need a break. 
  • It’s usually best not to start your workday by reading emails, because you’re likely to get off track and find it hard to get back. Instead, before you leave work, determine what tasks need to be handled first thing the next day. After that’s been taken care of, you can check your inbox.
  • Make sure your boss, co-workers and important clients know your schedule so they won’t be annoyed if you don’t respond to emails immediately. They can always instant-message you or call if it’s urgent.

Handle messages efficiently

Responding to incoming messages can seem like a never-ending task, especially if you don’t have a system in place. Here are some ideas to help streamline the process: 

  • Create folders within your inbox where you can quickly route incoming messages. You can probably tell from the sender and the subject line which folder it belongs in without even opening it. For example: Action Items, Pending, To Read Later, etc. Once those emails have been handled, archive them in other folders as appropriate so you can easily refer to them later: one for each project, or whatever system works best for you.
  • Spending a few minutes familiarizing yourself with the useful tools in your email can pay off in extra minutes in each workday. Most email providers let you establish rules that automatically sort incoming emails. For example, if you regularly receive notifications from the head office that don’t require a response, you can set up a rule to route them into a Notifications folder. Newsletters and blogs can automatically go into the To Read folder. 
  • Try using efficiency expert David Allen’s Two-Minute Rule. If it takes less than two minutes to read and reply to a message, do it right away instead of waiting and then going back to it later.

Automate responses

You can save yourself time and keystrokes by automating responses.

  • If you get emails that require the same type of answer every time, you can create a standard response that will automatically populate with just a click. For example, “Thanks for ordering from X Company. Your order will be processed within two business days.” Look in the tools section of your email provider to see how to set this up.
  • Remember to use the “vacation responder” function in your email if you’ll be away. It can be set to automatically send an out-of-office reply to any messages that come in between the dates you set. 
  • Make sure to set up with an automatic signature with your contact information at the bottom of each outgoing email.

Cut down on incoming emails

It’s good to deal efficiently with the emails you already have, but cutting down on the number of incoming emails can be even better.

  • If certain colleagues tend to copy you on emails when it’s not necessary, or write really long emails, let them know that you’re trying to cut down and see if they’ll cooperate.
  • Consider setting up a “burner” email address to use for newsletters, or when you need to provide an email address in order to access a website or order a product. This will reduce the volume of emails coming into your regular inbox, and you can check the other one when you have some free time.
  • Some social media sites, including Facebook, email you to let you know whenever you’re mentioned, and LinkedIn will email you if someone connects with you. Visit your social media sites and turn off these email notifications. 
  • Remember all those newsletters and store coupon sites that you signed up for but never read or use? Take a few minutes and unsubscribe to them. Tools such as unroll.me are also available to let you mass-unsubscribe to email subscriptions.

Don’t create more work

Don’t be your own worst enemy: before sending an email, make sure you’re not making more work for yourself.

  • Have a definite call to action in your email. An email ending with “We should meet to discuss this” is likely to generate a whole series of back-and-forth messages: “I agree. What about Wednesday?” “That’s not good for me. How about Monday afternoon?” etc. It would be much better to propose a date and time in the first email, or send an Outlook appointment.
  • Before you “cc” the entire office, think about who really needs to be included. Otherwise, everyone copied is likely to respond.
  • If possible, include a default action that will take place if there is no response. For example, “If I don’t hear otherwise from you by end of day Wednesday, I’ll assume you’ll be attending the meeting as planned.” This saves time for both you and the recipient.
  • If it takes more than a few sentences to explain, consider picking up the phone instead, or ask for a face-to-face meeting. It will be quicker, and the matter can be handled with less chance of misunderstanding.

It’s your workday--take back some time and spend it doing high-priority work instead of managing emails.