Wonder where your best, most productive hours go every day? Look no further than your email inbox.
The average American spends 6.3 hours a day checking email, with an embarrassingly high number of us doing it while we're in the bathroom (talk about multitasking!). That translates to roughly 1,575 hour in a work year--and that's if you don't check in at all on weekends or vacation. Right!
In theory, email was meant to make our professional lives easier. In reality, it can take us away from being truly productive.
If you want to win back your time for more important things (like starting or growing your business!) you have to make a much-needed version update to your own emailing habits. Here's how you can take back your inbox--and literally win back years of your life--with these 14 tools and strategies.
1. Aim for Inbox Zero
The "Inbox Zero" strategy is to have--you guessed it--zero emails left in your inbox when you leave the office each day. This goal requires diligence, because the handful of emails you put off until tomorrow becomes the hundred emails you have to deal with at the end of the month. It sounds impossible--but it's doable.
2. Follow the One-Click Rule
Putting off handling an email when you first read it guarantees having to look at it a second time. After reading an email, decide whether to respond, delete, delegate (forward), or add as a task on your to do list or calendar. If you can master the one-click email system, you are on your way to Inbox Zero.
3. ...Or Try the "Yesterbox" Approach
The "Yesterbox" strategy--created by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh--centers around viewing yesterday's emails as today's to do list. With this approach, the only emails you should respond to immediately are urgent ones, and the rest become action items for the next day. Knowing exactly how many emails you need to respond to each day before moving on to your non-email tasks helps you schedule your day in advance.
4 Limit Internal Emailing
Some employees will email anytime they have a question, status update or want to keep you "looped in" on a project--which can be untenable if you have several direct reports. Request that your team members send a once daily status update, or use an internal IM program (e.g., G-chat, Slack) for more urgent issues.
5. Block Out Email Response Time
Keeping your email up all day can easily distract you from other work. Schedule 15-minute blocks throughout the day to bang out emails, and--unless awaiting an urgent response--turn off alerts (or enable alerts for specific clients only) outside of these blocks.
6. Don't Respond Right Away
As you may have experienced, certain emails will resolve themselves (i.e., someone else copied will answer first) if you don't respond immediately. By setting your designated email blocks up at least two hours apart, you not only give yourself time for other higher-productivity projects--you give your sender a chance to resolve the issue in another way.
7. Move the Conversation
A simple question can easily spiral into a long back-and-forth email chain. If you see this happening, pick up the phone or send an instant message. A short conversation is always more productive than a long email chain.
8. Identify Responses Versus Projects
Even emails with subject lines that read "Quick Question" can be anything but. Identify which emails just need a quick response (two minutes of your time or less), and add any email that will take longer than that to your to do list without automatically prioritizing it over existing items.
9. Set Up Canned Responses
If you find yourself having to respond to multiple emails with virtually the same email response, try setting up form emails--known as "canned responses." Setting up a few of these saved emails for responses to press inquiries, sales requests, or company information can be a huge time saver. If you are using Outlook, save your canned responses in "Signatures." If you are using a Gmail based system, you can find the canned response option under "Labs" in Settings.
10. Unsubscribe En Masse
Somehow, purchasing one item online has landed you on fifty email lists. Unsubscribe from these manually, or try a service like unroll.me or sanebox to clean up your inbox. To prevent newsletter overdose from happening in the future, create a "mailing list only" email address that you use for online shopping, promotions, and newsletters.
11. Communicate Smarter
There might be leftover food from a client meeting in the break room, but does that really call for an email? For such "nice to know" information, use tools like Basecamp or Slack to communicate with your colleagues, and save email for direct communication that requires response.
12. Take Scheduling Off Email
If you send an email with the question, "When is everyone available for this meeting?" you are just asking for endless replies. Have a shared calendar set up with colleagues, and try a service like vCita to make scheduling with clients and other outside parties less email time intensive.
13. Lead by Example
Help others categorize and handle your emails by keeping them brief, and heading them with clear, easily searchable subject lines. Include a call to action in the subject line, such as "FYI: Guest List Status Update" or "Response Needed: Logo Approval." With any luck, your good habits will inspire others!
14. Don't Match Words
Just because someone sends a five-paragraph email doesn't mean you need to. Limit your response to no more than a few lines, or schedule a call (by the same token, never send super-wordy emails yourself). By keeping your own notes short and simple--think, Twitter length--you're likely to get a faster response, and resolve the issue more quickly.