Everyone would like to be able to increase productivity at work, whether it's boosting your own personal output, or finding a way to help your employees break through a sludgy work slump without cracking the whip.
Emails are a great place to start when it comes to plugging time-zapping holes in your work day. There are lots of approaches you can take to keep on top of your communication priorities without letting them take over your day:
- Use autoresponders for emails containing certain subject lines or received from certain people
- Look at some business apps that can either take some of the strain, or automate extra busy-work for you
- Set up an email schedule to make sure you only check and respond to emails during certain periods
- Delegate responsibility of your inbox to another party to reduce your initial workload
We'll discuss these approaches (and more) in greater detail to see how each works, how you can use them, and if they're suitable for you. We'll also look at the more damaging aspects of email from a psychological point of view.
Email is a fantastic communication tool, but it is just a tool; a single puzzle piece in an overall communication toolbox. Whilst it allows people and businesses alike to exchange all sorts of data in the blink of an eye, and facilitates quick and simple global communication, it's not without its own set of problems.
People can feel less cooperative and experience low rapport because of the absence of physical presence and it can be tougher to communicate effectively because emails limit tone, personality, and other expressive devices such as sarcasm.
That said, because of its passive nature it's a great fit for business, but the trick is in keeping it passive and not letting it take up too much of your attention and becoming too interruptive. Let's look at a few ways to claw back valuable time in your working day from the email machine and increase your productivity by addressing many of the common areas that can cause an email time-suck.
NOTE: Here at Red Guerrilla, we use Google Apps for Work and run our email through a customised version of GMail that runs on our main domain (http://www.redguerrilla.co.uk). Because of this, you'll find that some of the information below is geared towards applications that run in a GMail environment, but we've included some details for Outlook users too. However, you should find that the major principles work across any decent email program so you shouldn't be hampered by what you yourself use.
As well as some groovy features like the tabbed inbox that GMail offers, there is an even more straightforward method you can use to simplify your incoming mail sorting. Simply perform a search of your inbox (see screenshot) for whatever you wish and then apply some options to filter and respond to matching messages, both existing and future.
This filtering, sorting and responding can change your email life in the following ways:
- Filter non-important messages such as promotional emails, blog subscriptions, or regular updates that can all be put into their own folder to be read later, or at your leisure.
- Automatically reply to certain people, or messages containing particular subject lines with template, or 'canned' responses. This way, the recipient can be automatically provided with information or told on your behalf when they can expect a proper response.
- Forward specific messages onto others who may be able to handle the tasks on your behalf
Outlook has its own version of these settings in the Rules and Alerts feature (look in the 'Tools' menu). Here is a great article on how to setup an autoresponder in Microsoft Outlook.
Method 2: use some apps to automate tasks
Software applications and online services have never been more readily available to assist with, or replace just about any task you can think of. There are tons of great business apps that you try in your company to boost productivity and when it comes to emails there are even more.
Here are two we personally use at Red Guerrilla...
Most people get a lot of email and most email can usually be categorised into one of a small handful of groups. Similarly, these emails will usually be responded to in one of a handful of ways.
Enter canned responses. Canned responses are a great way to cut down on the amount of time you spend emailing the same sorts of things over and over by saving a reusable template which you can use to quickly put together a response.
Simply hit reply, spin up a canned response, change a couple of details to make it more personal to the recipient / situation and send. Boom - hello more time in your day!
One criticism of using email templates is the perceived impersonal nature of them. For instance, take a look at the screenshot. This is an example of a canned response we send to prospective clients to find out more about their project.
Now, we send this same email out to each and every potential client that wants to start a website project with us. But it doesn't mean we don't care or don't have time for them, far from it. But what it does mean is that we don't see the value in drafting a brand new email each and every time to say the same thing to different people.
By using a canned response template in this way we can add a couple of lines of personalisation to each email, but save time overall, allowing us to spend this saved time in more productive ways - helping existing clients, or producing helpful content like this article.
Canned responses exist in different forms for different email software, but for GMail and Outlook you can look in the following places:
- If you're using GMail then check out the Labs area within the Settings section and enable Canned Responses. From there you can new create a normal email, but instead of sending it, simply save it as a canned response to use later on
- For Outlook you can create a number of 'Quick Parts' and reuse them as necessary as outlined in this helpful blog post on the subject
One of the greatest ways you can increase your productivity when it comes to emails is to devise and start checking your emails on a schedule (more about this later on...). But of course what if you want to reply to emails at specific times that fall outside of this schedule?
Then there is the issue of follow up emails. Perhaps you've written a proposal and sent it on to a client. You want to follow up with this some time in the future, but how do you remember to do it? Post-it notes all over your desk? Calendar appointments, or to-do apps?
You can address all of these points and more by using delayed sending in your email. It's quite simple in execution:
- Create a message with / without attachments
- Select your recipient
- Set a customised sending time at some point in the future
- Set the mail to send at that pre-scheduled point instead of right now
By using delayed sending you can group email processes and workflows into one task. For instance, looking at the previous example of sending a follow up to a proposal, if you use a delayed send approach, you can send the proposal and at the same time create the proposal follow up email, but schedule it to send in a few days, a week, whatever you need.
No more messy reminders, post-it notes or other additional notifications to get the job done.
GMail has some great apps you can use, whilst Outlook has this feature built right in out of the box:
- Boomerang for GMail is a widely adopted app that integrates into your GMail service and offers a wide range of features such as delayed sending, reminders, read receipts, canned responses (as above) and more. Whilst it has a free tier it is a paid service at heart which is where the best value and features lives.
- GMail Delay Send is a completely free alternative to other services, but it does require a little initial leg work to set up. After that it uses a simple convention of applying a specific label to your GMail message and adding in a time frame notation to the beginning of the email in order to schedule it - e.g. '+ 2 days' or '03/01/2016'.
- For Outlook, you can edit the options of each email message under Delivery Options and enable the 'Do Not Deliver Before' setting to your requirements.
Method 3: delegate your email responsibility
This is probably the best way to increase your productivity when addressing your email management - simply have someone else do it. But, it's also most likely the toughest because it involves a lot of trust to be given to a third party and you also lose a portion of control in doing so.
Fortunately it doesn't have to be an all or nothing situation. There are a few different ways you can hand over the keys to your email inbox to varying degrees depending on your needs:
- Employee a PA - sure, it sounds pretty big time, but if your day to day admin tasks (including emails and calendars) are taking up a significant proportion of your time then maybe the investment can be justified.
- Engage a virtual assistant - if a full-blown PA isn't on the cards for whatever reason then there are plenty of virtual admin services available at a range of costs to suit. They can take over managing your emails, booking appointments and other necessary (but time-zapping) admin duties.
- Forward emails onto a colleague - no, this doesn't mean just forwarding any old thing to someone else to make it 'their problem', rather there are bound to be occasions where you can pass on an email (and subsequent interactions) to a more appropriate person or department to manage.
- Share a mailbox - whilst not as commonplace, sharing a mailbox with one or more other people can be a great way to free up some time in your day. This will depend on your department or business needs, but it is more than likely you will find some areas of common ground that can be shared amongst a group of people. Project management related emails, for example, could all be sent to a group mailbox - something like email@example.com - and then responsibility for this mailbox split between the project management department. The devil is in the details of what is looked after by whom and for how long: do you do a day each? A week at a time? Or only certain emails from certain clients?
Method 4: start an email schedule
A lot of people we meet at our various Yorkshire networking events manage their emails by having some sort of email checking schedule in place.
It might sound pretty drastic, but by limiting when you check and respond to emails you'll not only be able to focus on more of your priority tasks throughout the working day, but you'll also find that you start to define a predictable response patten for your recipients so that they'll know when they can expect a reply from you.
Of course, by sticking to a schedule it's likely that you will be able to adhere to this response pattern more reliably, so everyone's a lot happier in the long run; you know when you will work on your emails and your recipients know when you'll be able to respond to them.
What is the best email schedule?
Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. Like a lot of these questions the answer tends to be 'whatever works best for you'. If you're genuinely only checking your email a few times a day, then there might not even be a need for you to look into a schedule.
If, however, you find that you're constantly juggling your daily work and checking your email every few minutes then it would be a good idea to start somewhere, such as the example that follows.
A good starter email checking schedule is 3-4 times a day. It might look like this:
- Morning - set aside 30-40 minutes at the start of the day for 'admin' work and try to clear your inbox as best you can. Schedule messages for later, respond to things you need to, mark things as 'read later', and leave your inbox in a good state before starting on your main body of work.
- Pre-lunch - it's probably a good idea to enjoy some time away from your desk at lunch to de-stress and not spend it checking your emails. However you can set aside another 30 minutes before or after lunch to deal with your inbox.
- Hometime - generally people start winding down as the working day draws to a close. Instead of starting a task that you won't get the best from, spend another 20-30 minutes dealing with your inbox before you leave for the day.
Why is this important?
By setting limits on how and when you check and respond to emails you are doing a number of things:
- You will remove the interruptive nature of frequently checking emails. Studies show that on average people check their emails anywhere between once an hour and once every 5 minutes!
- You will eliminate the associated lapse in concentration and train of thought that occurs when you break off from a task to look at an email or scour your inbox.
- By setting a predictable response pattern to recipients you will effectively prevent a situation where your contacts demand an instant response to emails they send you.
Aside from the well-known communication difficulties associated with emails (loss of tone and ambiguity of meaning), email has a much more damaging, darker side to it:
- 59% of people check email in the bathroom. Known as 'variable-interval reinforcement' we keep checking emails because occasionally there is something good in our inbox, but we don't know when it'll be coming.
- 25% of people can't go without emails for more than 3 days.
- Dealing with emails can account for almost a quarter of the working day!
- People are 50% more likely to lie when using emails as they feel less restrained byt this medium.
The upshot of this is that the more you can distance yourself from your emails, the happier, healthier, and more productive you'll be. This doesn't have to be cold turkey, or spending days or weeks away, but even a simple checking schedule can work wonders and prevent your inbox monster from tapping you on the back every few minutes.
PsyBlog has a great article on 10 psychology studies which is where the primary statistical information we've used here is drawn.
So let's turn off the notifications and increase productivity at work
There we have it. We've talked about the murky psychological reasons why we're so drawn to spending more time with our emails and explored 4 different approaches you can try to help claw back some time and launch your productivity at work back into a good place.
So let's put away the inbox for now and try some of these activities out:
- Filter and sort your incoming mail to deal with what you need to deal with and leave the other stuff until later
- Check out some email productivity apps such as delayed sending or canned responses
- Delegate your emails to someone else where possible
- Start and stick to an email schedule. It'll help focus you on what's important and prioritise your work
Google Apps for Work
We touched briefly upon our use of Google Apps for Work and how we leverage its power to host our email system. As well as email, it enables us to keep our documents and client files backed up and secure, whilst also creating a great sharing platform for inter-company use. We chose Google Apps for Work because it's simple, secure, and allows us to bolster our IT infrastructure's resilience by shifting our main business operations into the cloud.
We'd heartily recommend it and would be happy to discuss how we use it and how we transitioned away from more traditional IT setups that used to be the 'norm'.
What systems does your company use? How do you find them? Let us know in the comments section.