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Make email work better for you

 In Insights, Productivity, Realizer Blog

Do you have a love/hate relationship with email? It might be because you’re addicted to the rush of new emails. But you have to wade through a daily mountain of rubbish to find the good ones.

I believe emails are psychologically addictive in the same way pokie (slot) machines are. Although you lose most of the time, you win (that is, get an interesting email) just often enough to keep you checking continuously.

Here are the top tips we’ve learned from hundreds of hours of research into being more productive and less busy. I’ve divided them into 3 big tips which are highly effective and widely applicable and 5 smaller tips which are more targeted. The tips are based on Outlook, although the same principles apply in other email clients.

Big Tip 1: Batch processing

Instead of checking your emails every few minutes, check all your new emails in a few, say 4-5, bursts every day. That way your brain is in “email processing mode” and you can get through them quickly. The key to this is making sure you don’t read emails twice (you know: when you take a sneak peek when it arrives, and then reading it later to action it). So, pair this batch processing with tip 2…

Big Tip 2: Do, Delegate or Defer & The 2-minute rule

An awesome rule from David Allen’s Getting Things Done book. If you’re processing your emails and you come upon an email that will take less than 2 minutes to action, do it. Now. That’s simply called the 2-minute rule and it can be surprisingly life-changing.

If it is something you can delegate, delegate it. Now.

If it is something that you can’t delegate and it will take more than 2 minutes, defer it – which means to send it somewhere that is your task manager. Which leads us to…

Big Tip 3: An inbox is not a task manager

Inboxes don’t work well as task managers. There are a number of reasons for this, but #1 is that the header of the email might just say “Hi” or “Work in progress” which means you need to open it up to see what needs to be done. That’s not efficient.

Set up a place where you can easily send items from your email to a task manager. We use Evernote but there are dozens of apps like this. In two clicks I can defer an item by sending it to Evernote into my task manager. The secret to this is to turn the email into a next action. I do this by pressing forward, selecting my Evernote email address, and then changing the email header to be the next action I require. That way I’ve deferred into what I call my “external brain” and have already decided the immediate first action I need to take.

Tip 4: Don’t reply immediately

If you’ve got clients, it’s tempting to reply immediately if you see one of their emails. It makes you feel like you’re giving good service. But in fact, you’re setting up the expectation that you will always be responsive. So, it’s often good to build in a delay. Maybe wait an hour and finish off what you’re doing.

If I’m working late, I like to use Outlook’s send later function (Windows only) to send the email automatically at 845am the next day. I don’t want to set expectations that I’ll always answer after hours.

Tip 5: turn off alerts

Aligned to tip 1 around batch processing. Turn off any alerts and pop offs on desktop and mobile so that you control when you read emails. They shouldn’t control you. If you think emails are addictive, then having pop ups is like a chocaholic trying to do work in a chocolate shop. This is easy to do in outlook.

Tip 6: have prepared blocks of text

These are known as “quick parts” in outlook (Windows only) and are useful if you tend to write the same block of text time-and-again in emails.

Tip 7: set reminders

If you send an email that requires a reply, you can use apps or plug-ins such as followupthen to automate this. You bcc one of a range of saved email addresses such as 2weeks@followupthen.com and it emails you back in 2 weeks to remind you to follow up. Easy as.

Tip 8: use email rules

If your inbox is cluttered with emails that you’re only cc’d on, take 2 minutes to set up a rule and send them to a “cc” folder which you can check once a day. If you get lots of all staff emails, you can do the same, send them to a special folder.

Tip 9: proactively using Out of Office (OOO)

People used to use this only when they went on holidays. Now people are using when they go to a meeting for 2 hrs. And it works, it sets expectations well.

Summing up

The basic principle is to get control. Don’t let it control you.

For more on productivity check out our 1 day training course where we look at email, meetings, flow, prioritising and much more.