Emails. Love or loathe them; for many, they are part of our daily life. However, for some of us, a never-ending email inbox can be a significant source of stress that eats away our energy and time. But, it doesn’t have to be like this. We can forge a better relationship with email by adopting simple tips and tricks that prevent even the busiest of inboxes from becoming monsters that gobble away our work days.
1. To email, or not to email
Email is a brilliant communication tool when used well. Every once in a while, it’s good to take a step back and reflect on how we use it and identify ways in which we can email better.
Are there times when an email is not having an impact because a real-time conversation is needed? Or are there opportunities where an email can help consolidate information? This year, I can think of two occasions when I replaced a long email chain with a meeting, as well as replaced meetings with a consolidated weekly email update. These decisions have positively impacted project progress and operational workflows in both cases.
2. Set aside time for your inbox
To avoid falling into an email vortex that eats away half of the day, try scheduling specific times during the day to check and respond to emails. For example, blocking off 20-minutes on my calendar in the morning and afternoon has helped me keep on top of my inbox and be more strategic about the type of tasks I do at specific points in the day. Not only does this ringfence how much time I spend looking at my inbox, but it also helps me better manage the time I have for projects and goals I want to set for the day.
Beforehand, I never used to set aside time for administrative tasks, which meant that I spent either too much or too little time responding and managing new requests communicated via my inbox.
3. Read and reply
Avoid wasting time reading the same email multiple times before sending a response. When I open my inbox, I do so with the intention of reading once and responding immediately. I only make an exception is when I receive an email requiring careful thought or consultation before responding.
But what if you don’t have all the information you need to reply? I still reply to acknowledge receipt of the email and use it as an opportunity to set expectations regarding timelines on when I can get the information requested to the recipient. Afterward, I add the action to my priorities list so I can manage my workload.
4. Avoid playing email ping-pong
Email is not snail mail, but neither is it a real-time conversation. I try to get out of ping-ponging back and forth with the same person over email by sending them an instant message to see if they are free for a call– it saves heaps of time! Alternatively, I use the delayed delivery function to steady the pace and help set expectations on how and when I use email.
Depending on your work email etiquette, a delay of a few hours or the next working day can work well. I especially like this function for sending emails to teammates that work in different time zones or part-time hours to be considerate of their location and working hours. This helps them to get into a ryhthm when it comes to fending off the inbox monster and avoids giving the impression that I expect an instant reply.
5. Stop chasing an empty inbox
When was the last time you cleared your inbox to zero? I managed to empty my inbox twice this year – neither occasion will be remembered as a productive or satisfying use of my time. If you work in an environment that depends on email communication, an empty email inbox is most likely not an indicator of your productivity or efficiency. I used to think it was and spent too much time managing emails rather than focusing on the work that brings the most value.
6. Set up the rules
Full credit goes to my teammate, who suggested I include this tip. Email rules are a feature I want to explore and use to help channel specific emails to designated folders. For example, project-specific updates or emails where I’m cc’d and not the primary recipient can be directed to folders that I can check periodically. This helps filter my primary inbox and in turn, helps me identify emails that I need to act on.
7. Use out-of-office
People often don’t mind waiting as long as they know there will be a delay and who to contact if their enquiry is urgent. This is where the out-of-office function and email signatures are our best friends.
Set up that automatic out-of-office notification when you take a half day off, or an extended holiday, or a business trip. Include dates for how long you will be away and details of who to contact if there is an urgent enquiry while you are out of office. Not only does this help to set expectations, but it also protects your time when you are out of the office, whether you are on holiday or running to catch a flight.
Equally, your email signature can be a valuable space to communicate your working days and hours – this is something I have noticed part-time staff do, and it has served as a helpful reminder when I receive an email from them.
These tips and tricks have helped me tame the email inbox monster, so I hope they help you too. If you enjoyed reading this blog, why not share it along with the tips that help you use email better?
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