Imagine it’s 9am Monday morning. You’ve just got into work and decide to dedicate your first daily actions to sorting your inbox, clearing the weekend’s messages and setting yourself up for the week ahead. But by the time you glance up, it’s 11am – you’ve fallen victim to the productivity trap of inefficient emailing once again. Frustrating and draining, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed – so just how can you boost your email efficiency and cope?
1. Know your way around your inbox
Though most business communication relies on email in one form or another, a surprising number of professionals are ignorant of relatively basic inbox management features. From knowing how to set out-of-office responses, establish filters to segment incoming mail, or create folders to archive important mail chains, automated management is the first step towards breaking time-management problems into smaller, simpler chunks.
2. Organise, organise, organise
Just as a tidy room equals a tidy mind, a well-managed inbox equals a well-managed schedule. Preventing late, missed and ineffective communications, forming a few basic organisational habits will increase response efficiency, productivity and professionalism.
As a starting point, you should make the most of automatic filters, file emails into relevant folders (say, ‘colleagues’ or ‘clients’ for search and archive simplicity), make sure contact lists are organised and regularly updated, and synch your inbox with your calendar to easily create events, set reminders and remember tasks. Don’t be afraid to delete the things you don’t need, and file the things you do – it will save much more time and mail space!
3. Monitor for mail mistakes
Once you’re making the most of email features and are efficiently organised, there’s no excuse for shoddy messaging. Showing a mastery of the basics of business email etiquette, double checking for error doesn’t take much, but increases the professionalism of communications tenfold, saving hours of time and confusion in re-sent corrections.
Before sending, always double check listed recipients (and their inclusion as ‘Bcc’ or ‘Cc’), include a clear, concise subject header, and ensure any attachments fit to yours, and your recipient’s file upload limits.
4. Keep content concise and clear
Efficient emailing garners responses. So to get those responses, consider your audience. Busy professionals will have their own inboxes to manage, so keep mail short, polite, clear and thoroughly proofread to make an impression and get your point across.
Most inboxes will do this automatically, but when creating new and lengthy messages, always save the draft. That way, if you go offline or your computer crashes, you won’t have wasted thought, effort, or time.
5.Make sure your signature’s up-to-date
Your email signature forms your virtual personality, giving message recipients a ‘first-impression’ of who you are. Because of this, professionals should think of signatures like business cards – with clear personal and company name/branding, contact details, and social network information/ links.
Try not to have too many images, and keep it short for viewing ease on tablets and phones. An effective signature signals capability and inspires trust, so make sure yours is neat, short and sweet, and encourages tweets!
6. Know when to use other formats
If you’re really overloaded, spend hours waiting for responses and find usual management strategies are ineffective, ask yourself: “Is email really the best medium for what I’m trying to achieve?”
Knowing when to transcend to other communication forms – picking up the phone, or speaking face-to-face, can avoid lengthy chains of unclear, slow mailing, save time and have greater impact as you’re introducing personality and removing the anonymous nature of abstract mailing.
7. Post replies at the top, not the bottom of email chains
Losing and confusing messages is a common problem of inefficient mail. But this isn’t always a result of poor archiving – sometimes it’s the fault of the sender.
Mail is increasingly read on phones and tablets, so to avoid limiting visibility on these devices, and to make overall communications clearer, always post responses at the top of chain messages. This is where the most recent replies normally appear – if your response is not immediately visible, it will be ignored. Busy people won’t hunt for it!
8. Tackle email responses in chunks
Taking a block approach to your inbox depends on the nature of your job and how integral email is to your hourly workload, but you may find increased productivity and efficiency in other tasks, plus higher quality replies if you are uninterrupted. If possible, focus on answering emails at set times, rather than dipping in and out, and half-concentrating.
9. Don’t allow your inbox to become a ‘to-do’ list graveyard
Compiling outstanding actions in your inbox counts as creating inbox clutter. Instead of leaving outstanding tasks to fester messily, translate actions from email format into manageable to-do’s, and keep your inbox clear. This will make incoming mail much easier to deal with and allow you to track, view and prioritise ‘to-do’s’ simply. Use Google tasks, reminders, project management sites, spreadsheets or even a simple notepad to collate and manage outstanding tasks.
10. Review your subscriptions
Do you really need to be signed up to so many newsletter updates, e-casts and notifications? How much of your new mail is automated product promotion that you habitually skip anyway?
Regularly invest in some dedicated de-clutter, ‘unsubscribe’ time to keep your inbox free, relevant and manageable. Make sure you find a way to remove yourself from the subscription lists, or at the very least establish filters so that junk mail bypasses your immediate inbox to be dealt with when you have the time. Don’t just delete these messages – that won’t solve the mail overload problem and you’ll still be wasting time in deleting them!
Remember, great inbox management is the key to successful, productive emailing and reduced-stress environments. So find the time to increase your mail efficiency, and you’ll find much more time for the rest of your day!
Alastair is a freelance writer working on behalf of Communicaid a culture and communication skills consultancy.
image credit: digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net