When it comes to productivity, there is nothing more destructive than an email inbox. If handled improperly you can waste an entire day putting out small fires and responding to emails that create little to no value for your business.
Which is why I wanted to share my nine tips for regaining your time and breaking the email habit for good.
1. Email is addictive - avoid that first temptation to check.
Recognize that taking that first "hit" by even doing a quick scan of your inbox will almost invariably lead you into a longer than anticipated run of responding to email. The best way to keep this from happening is to refrain from checking your inbox at all (for designated periods of time.)
This leads directly to the next several email tips...
2. Set firm email boundaries and respect them.
To produce at your best, you need interruption free chunks of time in which to get valuable work done. Understand that email is addictive, and when you do one you will likely get sucked into doing many. Respect your Focus Days and Prime Time value blocks as "email free" times when you'll close your email program and do your high value work. Coach your team about what you are doing and why, asking for their support to help you produce more for the company. I strongly recommend that you choose the first part of your day, right when you get into your office, to use for your Focus Day and Prime Time value blocks.
3. Leverage your staff (e.g. personal assistant, etc.) to screen your email.
The biggest excuse business people give for checking email goes like this, "What happens if a key client/vendor/staff member has a problem that they need my help to solve and it's truly an urgent, important fire?" Let's get real for a moment. The average business person checks his or her inbox over 20 times a day. How many of those 20 times uncover a truly mission critical situation that must be dealt with? You can protect your time and your company by leveraging a staff member to screen your email (at least in certain times in the day and week) to give you solid, high-value time to focus. If there is a real time sensitive, mission-critical emergency, they can knock on your door or call/text you to get your attention.
4. Turn off your auto send-and-receive function (or at least reduce the frequency it downloads new e-mail).
Also, turn off e-mail alerts (audio and visual). You don't need to see every e-mail the instant it comes in. Instead, intentionally check e-mail when you choose versus when someone hits send to you. E-mail alerts only promote compulsive behavior that kills productivity.
5. To get less e-mail, send less.
The more you send, the more you get.
6. To get less email, age your email before you reply.
The faster you respond the more likely you'll get an email back. Every email you get takes time to mentally process and to manually move, delete, or respond to. Consider waiting an hour, a day, even a week before you send your response. You can always use the "delayed delivery" feature of your email program to respond now but to delay your response being sent.
7. If you're involved in a frustrating back-and-forth conversation by e-mail due to hazy understanding on either side, just pick up the phone or speak in person.
E-mails are not good as a nuanced conversation tool and it shouldn't replace all conversations. If you think the topic may be a sensitive one, or that the reader may be upset or offended by your e-mail, don't send it. Talk with them instead (even if you then send a summary or confirming e-mail after). One of the most important functions you perform as a leader of your company is to reduce the "FUD" factor - the fear, uncertainty and doubt. Picking up the phone or meeting with someone face to face will quickly clear the air.
8. In replying to a long conversation thread, pull up the key information to the top of the e-mail.
Make it easier for your recipient to quickly get what you are communicating. Also, if you are creating a longer e-mail with multiple items, consider numbering your items to make them easier for your reader to follow and respond to your e-mail.
9. Don't use e-mail to manage your "tasks" or to manage your team's tasks.
Use a project list on a spreadsheet, or a shared task management or project management tool instead. E-mail is a poor place to keep a running list. What comes today is washed away by what comes later today (let alone tomorrow). There are simple, inexpensive project management tools available online and on mobile devices that allow you to list, categorize, prioritize, and share your open action items. It's a worthwhile investment to prevent tasks and follow-ups from falling through the cracks.