Despite exaggerated reports of email's demise due to social media, the fact remains that your email inbox is likely to be the place where you spend the most working time.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely that email time is the No. 1 source of value for you professionally, whether you bill hourly or not. Unless you are in a customer service or support role, do your clients, customers and colleagues really care about your email prowess? Or are you just freaking them out by sending them replies moments after they hit the send button?
While you and I may take pride in the fact that our average response time to emails is under three minutes, would our reputations be tarnished with a slightly longer response time?
And while many time management and productivity sages will advise the noble goal of checking email only once or twice a day, many, including me, find that harder to put into practice in the "real world."
So, what are some practical steps we can take to improve our handling of email— i.e. spend less time in our inboxes, and more time on productive, value-added activity? Here are five best practices for Microsoft Outlook that have worked well for me...and I'd love to hear your comments and suggestions below.
1. Keep your Inbox empty
Either delete or file emails as soon as you open them. If they sit in your inbox, they will drive you crazy. You'll end up looking at each email over and over again, thinking how you "should" get around to addressing that item.
Then, if you procrastinate, it will be the same drill next time you look at your inbox—you'll look at the same email, and decide whether to act or not.
Do yourself a favor: if you decide not to act immediately, file it away in a Personal Folder. Then, at a later time, you can batch-process all items in that folder.
By doing this, you'll build more momentum as you do your follow-ups, because you will be tackling items and issues that are related. This will go a long way towards preserving your sanity, because having an unofficial "to-do" list stacked up in your actual inbox creates a low level of stress that is always eating away at your sanity...
2. Use rules to automatically file emails
I used to let every single email drop directly into my inbox—what a nightmare that was! Looking back, it was a crazy practice. All of my correspondence, newsletter subscriptions, etc., came right into the same place. Yikes!
If you don't yet use Outlook's Rules and Alerts, you can find this under Tools > Rules and Alerts. I find the "Stay Organized" rules to be the most useful, where I create a rule to move an incoming message to a predetermined folder, based on the sender or subject line.
This is a great way to manage newsletter subscriptions, as it allows you to read related messages in batches, which can be a big help to your workflow.
(Note: The analogous feature in Gmail is Filters - you can find them under More Actions > Filter Messages Like These when you have a message open.)
3. Dial down the Send/Receive frequency
Under Options > Mail Setup > Send/Receive, you can control the frequency in which Outlook checks for new mail. And believe me—the longer the duration you set this option, the better off you'll be.
I used to have this set at a cool two minutes. And what happened? As soon as an email came in, I was on it! Well, great, but is an immediate reply really needed? Would it have killed me to not know about the email for an extra 10, 30, even 60 minutes? Of course not.
So I now have this set at a respectable 30 minutes...so if I don't cheat by manually hitting the Send/Receive button myself, I can actually focus on a task for 30 minutes, before the bright, shiny object that is incoming mail distracts me.
A setting of 60 minutes or longer would probably be even more effective, but hey; I'm still a recovering email addict—it's all about baby steps.
Remember, even by setting this to 60 minutes, your response time to emails will be roughly within the hour. That's still pretty awesome, and will be a lot less wear and tear on you than the instantaneous response time many shoot for.
And, you can get A LOT done when you work interrupted for just 30 or 60 minutes at a time. The problem is, we rarely do!
4. Closing Outlook
If you really have to get serious about getting work done, how about closing Outlook itself? This is an advanced corollary of Tip No. 3.
Sometimes this can be quite scary! Will the world end? What emails may come in while you are actually accomplishing something productive?
I have to admit I haven't yet worked up to this level during working hours, but have found it a good thing to close Outlook on Friday evening and leave it that way, at least until Sunday—preferably even until Monday.
The world has yet to end on me during one of these exercises, but I'd be keen to hear about your experiences.
5. Send less emails, especially during off-hours
The familiar refrain "’Tis better to give than receive" doesn't apply to emails, where the more you give, the more you'll receive.
So not only should you focus on sending fewer emails overall, but you should be especially diligent about keeping your email habit on a "need to send" basis during off-hours and weekends.
Since we all check email 24/7 these days, thanks to the magic of smart phones, you've probably received emails from fellow workaholics during unconventional working hours. Don't get suckered into their game of looking productive!
Email volleying, like little kids antagonizing each other, is a two-way street. And remember, it only takes one grown up to stop the madness!