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How can we make work email more productive?

Written 27 March, 2019, 4 minutes to read

Let’s be real: email is one of the most inefficient work tools going. A huge chunk of our time and focus is syphoned off each day to periodically check and respond to emails. And the “immediacy” of the work they introduce often sidetracks us from what’s actually important.

While there is certainly still a value to work email, it has become an institutional distraction for many. But email is unlikely to go anywhere soon. So how can we make email more productive? How can we ensure we only use it where it really excels, and free up more time for the job we were actually hired to do?

The problem with work email

As an enduring office tool, email is ridiculously unproductive. It’s also demanding, messy, and gratuitously formal. One of the big problems with email is that it’s instant, which makes us think we must reply instantly too – and if we don’t, we feel bad. Work emails aren’t usually straightforward, either; they’re full of questions and requests that inevitably spin in our heads until we reply.

The quest for “inbox zero” is unending, and just one day away from the office can lead to an anxiety-inducing email build-up. Finding information in email chains is long and fiddly, so catching up is rarely smooth. There are messages we’ve been unnecessarily CC’d in, and there are those people who insist on hitting that dreaded “reply all” button when there is literally no need.

And the sheer amount of productive time we lose to email is shocking. The average worker sends or receives 112 emails per day, taking up 23% of their day. Not only does email “pollute” our working environment, it also “encroaches on our personal lives” – according to Thierry Breton, CEO of French tech company Atos, who banned work email to great effect. So should you ban it too?

Email ban vs email limits

An outright ban may seem a little extreme (though it is becoming increasingly popular), but there’s definitely something to be said for setting strict limits for when email should be used. Interestingly, France seem to be way ahead of the game here; in 2017 a law was introduced that banned work email after 6pm, which was later dubbed the “right to disconnect”).

For many companies, setting “availability hours” for work email is more doable than banning it altogether. By limiting how much you use email, or even check your inbox, you’re helping regulate other people’s expectations of when they can contact you. Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Workweek, suggests only checking your email twice a day, and then eventually decreasing the frequency until you’re checking it once every 10 days!

Admittedly, checking email every 10 days just isn’t feasible for most businesses, but there’s no reason why you can’t create specific times in the day to check email – that’s something most of us can do right now. Maybe you check emails in the morning and before you leave for the day – and if you really must check again, after lunch too. That way you’ll have focused times for email, freeing up the rest of your day for deep work or other, productive tasks.

Setting a communication policy

Another good way to make work email more productive is to set a clear communication policy on when and how to use email. When drawing this up, think about what email is actually useful for, and when other forms of communication are more effective. Reduce unnecessary emails by outlawing confirmation emails – those pointless “OK!” or “Got it!” messages. Nobody’s got time for that!

Each time you send an email, think about why you’re sending it – then think about how you can write an email that doesn’t create a chain of responses. Get in all the information you need, and try to predict some queries people may have: include “If this, then that” situations. Every email you send should be:

  • Actionable
  • Proofread
  • Concise
  • Easily readable (use short paragraphs)
  • Polite, but not formal (formalities just waste time)

Using tools to minimize emails

There are dozens of apps that help minimize the time you spend on work email – from prioritizing your inbox so you know which emails are most important, to drafting responses for you: Airmail uses smart templates to help you write quick emails, Astro ranks your most crucial emails, and Front makes it easy to delegate emails (providing you have a shared inbox).

If you’re serious about making email more productive, you’ll also want to get a time tracker. AI-powered trackers like Timely run in the background, monitoring what you’re doing and how long it’s taking, to give you valuable insight into the ways you work. You can see exactly how long you spend on email, and what you do after checking it, to quantify the impact email has on your focus. Without a clear picture of how you use email, you simply can’t know how it affects your productivity.

Should you bill for the time spent on client email?

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