Do your inboxes feel more like a torture device than a productivity tool? An overcrowded inbox saps productivity and motivation.
However, email overwhelm is curable. Here are 10 strategies and tips that can help you hack your email back into something that works for you.
1. Use the right tool for the task
For starters, one key to effective email use is “knowing when to stop using email and go to the phone,” says Hannah Bontrager, executive director for Ballet Fantastique in Eugene, Oregon. Sometimes the best tool for the task isn’t email, but messaging platforms such as Slack, a phone call, or even an in-person meeting.
Set internal guidelines. This year, Bontrager has three major dance productions scheduled. Her team of 20 coordinates auditions, choreography, costumes, sets, and other production and administration details. Plus, they run classes at the Ballet Fantastique Academy, which offers dance lessons to children and adults.
Bontrager understands all too well how easily email can become a time-burying avalanche. Her role involves both orchestrating live dance productions and running an organization. She and her team are experts at wearing multiple hats. That’s why they set specific policies and guidelines for communication.
“We only use Slack for items that are updates, FYIs, or questions,” explains Bontrager. “We only email action items, as it helps with a track record and we don’t lose it. We email what needs to get done. Having other conversations through Slack helps keep email free of clutter.”
When a project or situation requires more interaction or discussion, Bontrager and her team move to a call or meeting, with follow-up actions sent via email.
2. Turn off notifications
You know the feeling: you finish the work day not understanding how you were at work all day, yet feel like you hardly accomplished anything.
It happens so easily too. You were focusing on a project, but then that “new email” banner popped up and convinced you to switch to your inbox.
The first critical step to getting your email under control is to turn off notifications. Psychologists have even called notifications a “toxic source of stress” for their tendency to distract and degrade people’s focus. Constantly switching to your inbox saps your concentration and can make it harder to get projects done.
Sometimes urgent messages do come through email, though. Check with your IT department or email service’s help section for how to allow notifications from specific “VIP” senders (such as your boss). That way when something comes through from a key person, you won’t miss it.
3. Start with your top priorities, not your inbox
Set down your things. Get coffee. Check email.
Scratch that last one.
If you don’t want your inbox to rule your day, then don’t start your workday with email. Your inbox isn’t going anywhere. But if you start every day with email—or spend your most productive hours in your inbox instead of working on your top projects—then odds are your main priorities and action items won’t be going anywhere either.
The key to success with this strategy is to know in advance what you need to focus on.
Either when you arrive that day or before you leave the day before, write out your top three to five priorities to tackle first thing. Then, once you’re settled in at the office—or whenever your most focused and productive hours are—work exclusively on those main projects and initiatives. You’ll be more productive. Then you can turn to the day’s email load knowing that you’ve made progress on the things that matter most.
Sometimes the best way to deal with email is to have somebody else deal with it. When an email comes through that isn’t central to your duties, it’s okay to delegate it to the right person.
“I wear a lot of hats,” says Bontrager. “Those who work under me have really clear job descriptions, so I know whose bucket to forward something to.”
Delegation helps you make sure that the best person for the task can now deal with it—freeing you up to do the tasks best suited for your role. Even better if you can skip the forwards and ccs. Some email solutions allow you to assign emails to other team members, resulting in greater transparency, and less likelihood of the email being lost somewhere along the line.
5. Open email only when you are actively writing, replying to, and managing email
It’s easy to think of Outlook or a Gmail tab as something you have open all the time. However, just like with notifications, always having your email open adds to stress and decreases productivity.
The solution is simple: only open your email app when you are actively writing, replying to, and managing email.
When you do open your email, keep focused exclusively on email:
- Deal with high-priority messages
- Review and prioritize new messages
- Write and send new emails and replies
- Archive any message that you’ve replied to so that your inbox is just a holding place for email that still needs a response.
This also means not sneaking in a peek at your email when you’re supposed to be doing other things—you know, like focusing on a project or eating dinner with your family. (And yes, that includes during meetings too. If you are tempted to check email during meetings, that can be a sign it’s a meeting you shouldn’t be in—but that issue is beyond the scope of these tips.)
6. Accept spam buttons and unsubscribe links as the friends they are
How often do you stay on an email list because the thought of unsubscribing makes you feel guilty, or you’re afraid you’ll miss out on something useful or extraordinary?
Now think of all the spam clogging up your email. Do you hesitate to whisk it away with the “spam button”?
Your time and work are important. Irrelevant lists don’t do you any good, they’re just another useless email that takes at least two seconds to review and delete. The trouble is, two seconds per email adds up—and can cause you to spend precious minutes, even hours, simply deleting emails that never needed to come to your inbox in the first place.
Spam buttons and unsubscribe links are actually really, really good friends. You can trust them with the truth: when an email list isn’t relevant to you, it’s okay to unsubscribe. When a message is spam, it’s best to mark it as such, so that and similar messages are less likely to arrive in your inbox… and therefore require you to waste less time dealing with them.
7. Folders, archives, and trash are email’s unsung heroes
Just as it’s crucial to make friends with unsubscribe links and spam buttons, it’s also time to recognize email’s unsung heroes: folders, archives, and trash.
The inbox should only be for messages that you need to deal with. Once you have read and/or responded to an email, either archive it or delete it. “Religiously file and archive emails, so that the only emails in your inbox require action,” says Bontrager. “I prefer to archive everything else.”
Folders aren’t just for when you’re done with an email. They can also be crucial for helping you deal with email before you even read it.
“When producing a big show or facing a big grant deadline, I set up a Gmail folder, such as ‘AFTER SHOW NEXT,’” says Bontrager. “One or two weeks prior to a big deliverable, I put everything not related to it in that folder. If it’s not on fire, it’s in there. Then I take care of it after the deadline or event.”
Bontrager focuses her Gmail’s Priority Inbox for tasks she needs to personally tend to. For other items, such as decisions that require coordination and discussion with her artistic director, Bontrager moves them to a dedicated inbox. “These are things I can’t do without her input and help, so I have them filed away until we meet,” explains Bontrager. “Then they’re not on my mind.”
8. Be clear and concise
Email effectiveness isn’t just about what you do with what comes in. It’s about what you send out, too:
- Write a clear subject line. Be specific, not generic. “READ NOW” is general, unclear, and spammy. Short is good: make your email subject only as long as it needs to be to clearly relay the scope of the message.
- Keep the email body concise and focused. An individual email needs to contain one key piece of information, one call to action, or both. That’s it.
- BLUF ‘em. Put the “Bottom Line Up Front,” or BLUF for short (or substitute with a simple phrase such as “Bottom Line”). That way, the core message is in the subject, and any ancillary info is in the body of the email.
- Use keywords. Some organizations, such as branches of the military, have approved keywords and acronyms to help everyone communicate clearly. Explore setting up similar keywords in your organization too. They can help everyone review, understand, file, and find email more effectively. Just don’t forget that no one outside of your company understands or cares about your acronyms—don’t use them when communicating externally.
9. Set a timer and don’t multitask
With so many emails to deal with on any given day, it can easily become an endless time suck. But it doesn’t have to.
Controlling how much time you spend on email is as simple as setting a timer for a specific amount of time that you’ll work on email that day. Timeframes could be two or three 30-minute blocks scattered throughout the day, or use blocks of 25 minutes, as popularized with the Pomodoro Technique:
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Work through email until the timer goes off.
- Take a 5-minute break. Grab a snack or something to eat, but at least stand up and stretch.
- Repeat steps 1 to 3 for three more cycles.
- Take a longer break (such as getting lunch or going for a walk)
10. Make friends with formatting
Today’s email apps make it easy to use effective, clear, simple formatting:
- Use bulleted or numbered lists for clarity and sequence.
- Put an empty space (two returns) between paragraphs.
- No tabs (or worse, multiple presses of the space bar) at the start of paragraphs.
- Bold one-line headings or important statements.
- Close your email with “Thanks in advance” before your signature. It can have the best response rate—65.7 percent, according to Boomerang, an app suite that enhances Gmail.
11. BONUS: Automate
Today’s email tools also provide more options than ever for efficient, effective email use.
If using Gmail, enable canned responses to set up saved stock replies and email templates that can save yourself a lot of typing. You can set up multiple templates, then pull the one you need into a new message for faster sending.
For Gmail, Outlook, and mobile email apps, consider Boomerang for a range of email functions, such as scheduling emails to send at optimal times, or receive follow-up reminders if someone hasn’t responded to your email within a specified timeframe.
“To make sure things don’t fall through the cracks, I use Gmail’s Boomerang app,” says Bontrager. “I can automate things such as seeing if someone has written me back after a certain time.”
Email isn’t perfect, and neither are the people sending and dealing it. But email also doesn’t have to be a source of torment. By putting these tips to work, you can stop being controlled by your inbox, and can instead put yourself back in control of this essential part of your work.