A quick way to be more productive and efficient at work is to have a strategy for dealing with your emails. Few job descriptions or role responsibilities include “answer emails” yet most people complain about full inboxes and being behind on answering them. People have email fatigue at work – they are tired of the endless receipt and need to answer.
First, let’s lay the foundation with some terminology before outlining the strategies and tips.
How to be More Productive at Work
Let’s start with what productivity means. Productivity is the ratio or rate of doing work in a given period of time. ‘How productive were you today’ in the context of an office is quite subjective, it’s your own assessment of how much you got done today usually relative to your never-ending to-do list. In a manufacturing environment it’s more measurable – how many units were manufactured in a certain period. Whether for office work or manufacturing most employers and leaders want productivity to be as high as possible. A productivity focus drives doing more in the same period. So, to be more productive, do the work faster.
How to be More Efficient at Work – What does this Mean?
Efficiency is the use of time and energy in a way that is not wasteful. This word begs the question what is wasteful? This notion implies that any idle time or energy not channelled toward a task is wasteful. Ironically, many people get their best ideas and are more creative when they aren’t chained to a desk or laser-focused on the task at hand for long periods of time. And there are often wasteful moments in multitasking which is explained in the tips below.
How to be More Effective at Work Means What?
Effectiveness is about doing the right things or more of the things that matter. This is the terminology I feel leaders could reflect on more. The focus here is on the results and not the time it took to get those results. An executive coaching client once said to me that his focus was doing what only he could do, the rest being delegated or stopped.
Email Best Practices at Work When Sending Emails
Almost everyone I coach complains of too many emails and we are all guilty of feeding into it by sending emails and replying to emails, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence why we will start with the emails you generate.
- Communicate better. Send better emails. Write clearly and concisely. Keep it short to make it easy to read and long enough to be clear. If it needs to be long, what’s driving that? Items such as, purpose of email, succinct background, rationale/recommendation/issue, next steps, call to action are useful to include as appropriate. Ensure the subject line is clear. Have clear actions and deadlines in the email if not the subject line.
- Think before you send an email. Does the subject warrant a phone call, a meeting, an IM or an email? What’s the purpose of the email? Often people send emails to get a task or issue out of their exclusive domain and into other peoples’ spaces in order to advance it to some degree. Other times they are sent to check on progress. If this is the case, try a project management tool designed for that purpose.
- Be clear with the TO and CC fields. Include the fewest recipients as possible. Ideally have one person as the main TO receiver to be clear of who needs to do what.
- Be vocal about sending fewer and better emails. Be vocal about cutting down on email to create a culture change in your team, if not organization. Everyone would welcome the notion of fewer emails.
- Use email tools that allow scheduling, follow up flags, creating response templates for repetitive responses. Tools allow you to use the technology rather than be a slave to it. Ask your IT contact about what tools your company supports.
- Send fewer emails as that will have you get fewer replies back. Be a role model for the change you want to see in the world as Gandhi said.
- Avoid sending an email if you anticipate someone will be upset by it. Pick up the phone instead.
Managing Emails at Work that You Receive
Some of these suggestions will feel uncomfortable. That’s because there are psychological factors at play:
- FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out if you don’t see an email immediately or first,
- We are trained to respond to the ‘ping’ of notifications,
- Needing to be or seen to be ‘always reachable’ in case of ‘emergency,’
- Being an overachiever, perfectionist or driven to do everything possible.
- Close your email down when working on key projects and when meeting others. Research shows multitasking at work is inefficient. It’s fine to multitask when washing the car and listening to a podcast as different mental resources are used. At work, jumping between tasks requiring thought is inefficient, it is essentially stop/start and you lose flow, it takes you longer to get into focus when you flit between things. Continually hearing the ping of emails arriving can create anxiety and cause the stress hormone, cortisol, to be released thereby clouding the prefrontal cortex of your brain where your rational thinking happens.
- Only check email at specific times in a day so that answering emails fits amidst the bigger priorities. Checking emails 3-4 times a day should be enough. Allocate your time to your team, your strategic thinking, your key projects BEFORE dedicating time to reviewing email. When you’re checking email, focus on the email, don’t multitask with your phone or papers. Don’t check emails first thing in the morning, do some thinking or work on a key task before being drawn into reviewing emails.
- Analyse the emails you receive to identify opportunities for reducing them. For example, you can identify if there is one person who consistently sends most of them or one topic by sorting your inbox based on sender and subject (the same person sending many emails might imply unclear responsibilities), how many people are on the to and cc lines (may imply covering their butt, lack of clear decision making or laziness), if the email was printed would it be the thickness of a book (might imply emails being used in place of productive discussion), are you copied on many emails from your team (might imply they don’t feel full ownership, don’t understand your involvement or can’t get your input otherwise).
- Set guidelines with your team for when and how emails should be sent. What is the purpose of email in your team or organization? Set expectations for when you want to be copied or not. Additionally, talk about whether emails should be sent outside of traditional work hours and if they are, set the expectation of when you will respond.
- Set up “rules” in your email settings to sort them into sub-inboxes to handle them more efficiently. For example, emails you are copied on can go into a sub-folder for reading only.
- Inform others that if they need you urgently, to call. This manages peoples’ expectations of getting hold of you and alleviates any fears you have of being unreachable when you close your email.
- Unsubscribe to unread blogs, articles, newsletters. You haven’t read them now, you won’t in the future. At least set up a separate folder for BLOGS and set a rule to allocate blogs to that folder.
- Deal with an email if when reading it, it’s taken you longer than 2-3 minutes to read as you’ve already invested the time in it. If you read the email and don’t deal with it, you’ll have to reread it at another time creating repetition. It also eliminates any anxiety about that email between subsequent reads. Some people say only touch an email once – delete it, delegate it, respond to it, schedule it for a specific time to work on it.
- Apply the 80/20 Rule. Focus on the 20% of emails that will lead to 80% of the results. This is true for most work, not just emails.
- Delete emails that have lingered in your inbox. The adage goes that if it’s important and you’ve deleted it someone will chase you down.
You will always have more work to do then there are hours in the day, at least that’s my experience working with successful, ambitious people. The key is how many hours do you want to work for the success and satisfaction you want. Given that number of hours, what do you want to be focused on in that time? What is the high value work that only you can do? Most emails fall outside of that criteria so treat them appropriately.
What improvements would you and your team benefit from with regards to improving communication and setting expectations to reduce time lost to emails?
Book a complimentary coaching session with me here to assess your leadership and address what might be impeding greater success.
The topic of efficiency and effectiveness will continue next week when we look beyond just emails.
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