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3 Tips for a Productive Approach to Email

Posted By Nicole Avery 15th of March 2017 Be Productive 0 Comments

 

Back in 2006 Merlin Mann created a series of posts on the 43 Folders blog called Inbox Zero. I am sure most of you have heard this term, but from chatting with bloggers at conferences and meet ups, most bloggers have misinterpreted the key philosophy behind Inbox Zero.

Contrary to popular belief, the “Zero” doesn’t refer to fanatically keeping your inbox empty at all times. Instead, it refers to “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox.” {source}

We all know that spending our entire day in our inbox is not productive, but how can we approach email productively? To determine this we need to define productivity. I define productivity as using your time, energy and attention effectively to achieve your goal.

And you can use this definition of productivity to understand the real point of Inbox Zero. What Mann was getting at with Inbox Zero, was that you need to manage your inbox in a way so that it takes up a minimum of your time and attention.

In order to do this you need to have a process for how you deal with your email. You can find many complex systems on the internet by email specialists on how to label, filter and file emails which will help you make small gains in productivity. But if you want to make substantial improvements and really reduce the amount of time and attention you give to email, you need to take a step back and look at your overall approach to email.

Here are three strategies I have implemented to my email practice that has reduced the amount of time I spend on email each week by more than half.

1. Batch your emails

Batching your emails addresses two of the key components of productivity – it impacts how much time and attention you give your email. Batching your emails means you only access your emails at particular time/s of the day.

I took a gradual approach to batching my emails. I first started by allocating a block of time each day for emails and I set it for a period in the day which had a natural boundary. It was the last hour of my work day and the hour leading up to when I had to head out to pick the kids up from school. Email is a task that expands to fill the time you allocate to it, so where possible if there is a time in your day that has fixed boundary, try using it as a book end for you email batching.

Approaching your email in blocks of time like this reduces the over all time you spend on email during the day. It prevents the quick check here and there, that finds you reading emails but not actioning them. Meaning that when you go back to the inbox you have to read them again and then action them, effectively double handling them and doubling the time you have spend on email.

The batching approach also means that you minimise how much attention your inbox takes up. Every time we take a quick check of our emails, out attention is diverted from the key activity we were working on and even though we may switch back to our key activity quickly, part of our attention remains in our inbox.

For example, as a blogger if we are writing a post and decided to do a “quick check” of our email and find an email from a reader who is angry about something we have written, or we have an email from a client reminding us of an overdue task, it is hard for us to 100% focus on writing our post. Our mind wanders to explanations we will write to both emails, killing off any flow we had going and making the task of writing the blog post harder and longer than it needed to be.

Sophie Leroy, a business-school professor at the University of Minnesota studied the impacts of switching between work tasks and she refers to this as attention residue. In the abstract of her study Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks, Leroy notes:

people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.

If you want to be productive in the way you approach email, leave checking it to dedicated blocks of time, time where you are only focusing on one task.

After my experiment with batching my emails as my last task of the day, I found there were moments where I was still taking a sneak peak here and there. It generally happened when I was stuck on something, finding a task hard or procrastinating. To create good habits I am a firm believer in setting myself up for success so I installed BatchedInbox. It is a super useful tool for Gmail that enforces your batching rules for you.

Within BatchedInbox you determine the frequency that you will receive your emails. Mine is set to release my emails to me at 1pm each day. If at any point I go into my inbox after this, I will see no new emails. So even if I do check there is nothing new to see!

There are some ways around the system, for example when I am creating my newsletters and I want to see a test version sent to myself, I can simply go to my sent mail and it will be sitting there for me. There are also ways to pick up the other emails waiting for you, but all of them require me to do a few extra steps. Those extra steps make me ask the question “do I really need to check my email?” and almost every time the answer is no.

2. Decide your process for actioning emails

A standard approach to email is to jump into the inbox and start working on what is at the top and make your way down. This can see you dedicating time to emails that are not as important as others. We can also feel the need to respond to emails that have been sitting there for a while if we finally have time to action them.

To prevent you from randomly working on emails you need to define a process for actioning them. My approach when I do access my inbox is to:

  • Delete – go through and see what I can delete. I have a policy of deleting any brand request etc emails that are not addressed to me personally.
  • Batch – file away like emails so I can respond to them at once, for example I often ask for people to reply to me in my newsletters, so have a folder for these emails. Responding to them all in the same session means my mind is that mode and I can respond quickly to them.
  • Importance – with the above emails sorted, I then scan through the email titles and sender names and determine the order I will respond to them. The order I respond in is directed my my business goal for the year. PR requests for example even if they have urgent in the headline will not be actioned before queries from my paid course members. It is often easier to reply to the “urgent” style emails coming through rather than more complex and important emails from course members after more information or writing a proposal response for a large campaign request.

3. Write short and effective responses

Writing polite, well written but short and effective email responses is something that takes practice. When sent a detailed and long email from a reader, we often feel the need to reciprocate and give a lengthy response. As nice as that is to do, for most bloggers it simply isn’t practical.

The other extreme is that it can be tempting to make our way through our inbox, by creating some email tennis – that is we respond to an email with a question with another question to lob the email ball back on their side of the court. This just clogs up both inboxes and requires more work in the long run.

When replying to emails, ensure that you write only what you need to and make it as easy as possible for there to be a resolution for your email. If for example a prospective client wants to have a Skype call with you, either send a list of available times or even use a tool like Calendly to make organising the time simple and fast.

If writing short responses is a new thing for you and you want to educate your network try using the Chris Ducker 3 sentence rule.  This simply involves a line in your email signature saying “Why is this email 3 sentences, or less? Click here to find out.” Hat tip to the lovely Kelly Exeter for this email productivity tip.

Canned responses is another tool that helps you with responding to emails effectively. It is for Gmail users and can be found in Labs in your settings where you can enable it. Canned responses allows you to send standard responses to emails. You can have many canned responses and can choose which response you send to which email.

I receive many emails a day requesting opportunities to guest post, asking me to promote their products, adding links to my posts etc. I have separate canned responses for all of these, politely written declining them all. Some bloggers choose to simply delete these emails instantly which is one approach, but they tend to be persistent and repeat email, so I have found it more effective to tell them no thanks and cut down the volume coming in.

When actioning email it is important to remember that you are in control. Just because someone has sent an email which asks for your attention, doesn’t mean you have to give it attention straight away. Email is a tool to assist with your blogging, but it is not your core activity. The time and attention you give your inbox should reflect that.

What is your approach to productively handling your email?

About Nicole Avery
Nicole Avery is a Melbourne mum to five beautiful kids aged seven to 17. She is the master organiser behind the popular parenting blog Planning With Kids and and the creator of the Planned & Present e-course, a step-by-step guide for mums on how to organise the chaos of family life while still leaving space to enjoy it.
  • DNN

    I was always curious what specific e-mail service you could use to send out mass e-mails to opted in permission-based e-mail subscribers. I was looking into sending mass e-mails from the administrative dashboard of my website,, but suspected it may eat up a significant amount of bandwidth. What e-mail mass sending services would you recommend personally to help affiliate marketers and bloggers achieve the objective of sending out newsletters and other related content via e-mail with affiliate links in them? Any and all helpful information will be gladly appreciated.

    And by the way, if you have any helpful videos you can point me to on YouTube from you that’ll help me better understand mass e-mail marketing and how to send out batch e-mails by the masses, I’ll greatly appreciate that also. Don’t laugh at me too hard as I’m still stuck on stupid about mass e-mail marketing. LOL :-)

  • It is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.
    This line is Just amazing. Just Amazing.
    I can co-relate it with the time i started and was still growing.

    This is the biggest mistake to stick on a particular task for more than recommended time. if it takes long we should move over the next so that at least it can be completed on time and we will not get demotivated.
    Thanks.

    • Hi Jitendra,

      It is easy to underestimate the impact of task switching. Since I single task I have become much more productive.

      Nic

  • This was helpful. So helpful that I read all the way to end!! I have started batching, but didn’t know that’s what it was called (THANKS!). I tried color coding but it didn’t work for me. The tabs feature in Google seems the most user friendly for me.

    • Thanks for reading to the end Debbie – it was a long one :)

  • Hi DNN,

    Email marketing is a different topic to what I was writing about. Darren has written many posts on this topic. You could start with this post https://problogger.com/why-i-use-aweber-to-deliver-my-newsletters/

    Nic

  • Hi Nicole,

    Thank for sharing! Batching is a good technique. And batching is simply a form of time management that allows a person to maximise concentration and decrease distraction.

    However, I’ve used it quite a bit when writing essays and have found it quite helpful.

    With Best Regards,
    Salauddin Bepari.

  • Hey Nicole,

    I always feel overwhelmed because of the promotional emails. I really need to batch them for better results.

    Just a couple of days, I was even lost because of some stupid spam email.

    The actions you take to delete such emails is required. I really need to filter my inbox. The response you give matters a lot.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    ~Ravi

  • Thank you so much for sharing your Experience.
    I really suffer a lot when i open my inbox and there are lots of promotional e-mails and spam e-mails and due to these types of e-mails i missed my important mails to read.
    Its really important for me to batch them for a better experience and i hope it will help me to ignore spammy emails.

  • Understanding your audience is such an easy thing to learn, yet a difficult skill to master. I really think eliciting your audience is the most valuable tip – as when we read something a specific word or phrase can really grab our attention in powerful ways.

  • My approach is to make use of private Facebook inbox to deeply engage with my audience thanks to Messenger Bulksender.

  • Hey Nicole,

    Managing your email has become an important part of modern knowledge work. As common as it is for everyone to have email, most people still do not know how to properly manage their emails.

    People often complain that email is one of their largest sources of distractions, and that using email ends up wasting a lot of valuable time. We should try to write short paragraphs, separated by blank lines. Most people find unbroken blocks of text boring, or even intimidating. Eventually, thanks for revealing a light on this topic.

    With best wishes,

    Amar kumar

  • Most of the emails I get are junk. Could I just ignore them all? I know, I know, some of them may be important. Still.

  • Great advice! Email can take up a lot of time so these tips are helpful for people who find themselves constantly checking their inbox. Batching can be effective for time management and I like what you said about responding. Sometimes short responses are more effective than a long one.

  • Jens

    Thank you. Like most articles about email processing, you cover incoming emails well.

    I’d love to hear tips about how to manage outgoing, i.e. sent, emails. I often neglect them, and find my Sent Items folder containing hundreds of emails before I, reluctantly, clean it up. I have now set myself a monthly task to deal with this.

    Another thing is reminders. What if we wait for someone to come back to us and our email software doesn’t support reminders?

    Thanks!