Office workers are known to complain about having to attend unnecessary meetings. Today, they are more likely to say, “Email is the bane of my existence”. How do employees get their work done effectively? More importantly, how do they tame technology to get back their time, productivity and joy?
McKinsey Global Institute and International Data Corp in a 2012 study found that email is the second most time consuming task for the workforce, taking up 28% of workers’ time. Research conducted by The Radicati Group, in a 2012 email report, said most of the world’s email traffic comes from the corporate world. In 2012, 89 billion business emails were sent and received daily. That number will grow at an average annual rate of 13% over the next four years, reaching 143 billion by year-end 2016.
Two productivity experts and authors offer tips on how to manage your email inbox and increase your productivity. They are Jason Womack, author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More and Robert Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours.
1. Apply the 80/20 email rule and OHIO (Only Handle It Once)
Referencing the classic 80/20 rule, Pozen believes that most of the value comes from 20 percent of your work. Correspondingly, 80 percent of your email can be discarded while 20 percent needs to be read and is important. If an email can be answered immediately, then do so. If important emails have attachments, print hard copies and review them over the next 24 hours. Then with hard copies in hand, respond thoughtfully the next day. A drawback to waiting a week before responding is that you must find the email or document and remind yourself of the contents.
2. Create a simple follow-up email system
There are many cases where your email response requires a follow-up with someone after sending information after introducing your product or service, a new project or a meeting request. Rather than search your sent folder, which is time consuming, Womack recommends a BCC to yourself for emails that require a reply. Those emails can be quickly found later if they are moved into a folder labeled “Follow-up”. Womack says checking this folder allows you to stay on top of messages if a reply is expected.
3. Reduce email for instant messaging, project management and social media tools
An alternative to group email threads that clog up inboxes is to use instant messaging tools that allow employees to communicate in real time quickly and efficiently. The goal is that tasks are identified, clarified and responded to quickly and everyone connected to the conversation is up-to-date. Popular tools for instant messaging are Microsoft Lync and Skype, for Project Management tools are Basecamp, Trello and Asana and for collaborative social media are Yammer and Podio.
4. Make your subject line actionable
It is difficult to act when receiving an email message with one or two words in the subject. Womack suggests changing the subject lines of emails received to the action you need taken. Think of the actual action needed around who, what and by when. In Microsoft Outlook, the command ALT + E allows you to edit the subject line with your action steps. Womack offers examples of before and after subject lines. He also says people who create new actionable emails get replies faster.
BEFORE changing Subject Line:
Re: budget meeting
AFTER changing Subject Line:
Draft agenda by 11/21/08 re: budget meeting.
Fax Kira (415) 236-6045 signed contract: Wilson project
Call Jason (805) 640-6401 to schedule Q1 ‘09 Seminar
Email Sales team revised edits to Newsletter by 11/14/08
5. Set up meaningful keyboard shortcuts to type less
If your job involves responding frequently to emails requesting the same information, Womack recommends using keyboard shortcuts. These are two or three word macros that expand into phrases, sentences and even paragraphs, useful for boilerplate text. Blackberry and Apple smart phones allow users to create keyboard shortcuts for email. For personal computers, keyboard shortcut software can be purchased.
Using keyboard shortcuts, two or three letter macros expand into words, sentences and even paragraphs to answer the most frequently asked questions I receive. Some examples of time saving email shortcuts Womack uses daily are below.
em: email address
mo: my mobile phone #
tu: thank you
sig: completes your signature to add to end of email.
6. If you want to receive less, send less email
A common sense guideline is to respond less to individual and group emails if you want to receive less. It works. Most people apply the same rules of face-to-face conversations with email. For example, if something is agreed upon and one person says thank you or bye, it is a big productivity drain to reply each time with a thank you or a bye. It is not rude if you do not reply.
Ultimately, anyone wanting to increase productivity must improve his or her relationship with email. This means identifying your most important tasks and objectives each the day before opening your email. The danger is that email will take a big chunk of your morning before starting on your key tasks. Both Pozen and Womack recommend strictly checking email at fixed times in the day and turning off instant notifications. Ideally, the goal is to respond to emails that support completing your most important tasks as early in the day as possible. Imagine the satisfaction of checking off one or two big tasks before noon.