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How to Process Email Quickly and Efficiently
So you’ve reduced the number of emails you’re getting. That’s a start. Now we need a system to quickly process the emails left in our inbox. Here are some suggestions.
Turn off email notifications on your computer and phone. To break the time-sucking habit of constantly checking your email, turn off all email notifications on your computer and phone. Those random little “pings” are just conditioning you to check your email compulsively like a Pavlovian dog. Moreover, email notifications distract us from focused, concentrated work. Our brains aren’t really wired for multi-tasking. We may think we’re just going to spend only a minute reading that latest email, but studies have found it takes, on average, 25 minutes to return to your original work once you’ve gone down the rabbit hole.
Establish set times for responding to email. Instead of checking your email as the notifications come up, set aside specific times each day that you dedicate to checking and responding to email, such as a 30-minute session in the morning and at the end of the day. You’ll be amazed how much email you’ll be able to process and answer when you’re solely focused on the task.
To make your email sessions even more productive, consider answering emails in “offline” mode. Answering emails offline ensures that you don’t get bogged down in a game of “email tennis” where someone responds immediately to your response.
A common rebuttal to only checking and responding emails a few times a day is: “What if I get an important email that needs a response ASAP?” If it’s really that important, the person trying to reach out to you will connect to you a different way, like calling you on the phone. The reality is most things in email aren’t that important and can wait a few hours for a response. Email’s immediacy just makes us feel that everything we communicate is urgent even though it’s not.
Here are a few other tips when considering the timing of answering emails:
- Get out of the habit of checking email first thing in the morning. Instead, spend that time in a routine that will set you up for daily and lifetime success.
- When you do commence your morning email review session, move emails that don’t need an immediate answer to a special folder (see below) and then answer them at the end of the day. You only have a limited amount of willpower each day, so don’t waste it on formulating email responses before you even dive into your important work.
- Don’t respond to business emails after work hours. You don’t want clients or fellow employees to get the impression that you’re available 24/7. Establish boundaries or else you’ll never leave your inbox. Feel free to write up your replies at night in offline mode, just don’t send them until the next morning. Of course, if you’re moonlighting on top of your regular day job, answering email during non-work hours is probably your only option.
Respond, delete, file, archive. During your email sessions, quickly scan your inbox. With each email, you’re going to perform one of four actions: respond, delete, file, archive. The goal is to completely clear your inbox.
Respond: If responding to an email will take less than two minutes, then reply and be done with it. This can include delegating it to the more appropriate party or to an assistant. If the email doesn’t require a response, but has an associated action — like bringing the drinks to your kid’s next soccer game — write the action item in your to-do list and archive the email.
Delete: Be judicious with the delete key. I like Matt Gemmell’s approach to processing email:
“The importance of an email isn’t something you need to spend time thinking about. If it doesn’t immediately and obviously make you feel you should reply to it within the next day or two, it’s not that important to you. Archive or delete it.
If it’s sufficiently important to someone else, that person will expend effort to make it come back to you. If the email does not come back to you, you would have wasted your time replying to it. Win-win.”
When in doubt, delete. Don’t feel guilty.
File: If an email will require extra time to answer and isn’t urgent, file it away to a “To Answer” folder. Dedicate your last email-checking session each day to tackling emails in this folder.
Archive: If an email is just for informational purposes and doesn’t require a response or action, archive it. If you need that information, you can always find it using your email’s search feature.
Use the five-sentence rule. Keep responses brief. It saves time for both you and your recipient. Entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki recommends the “five sentence rule” when writing emails. “Proper email is a balance between politeness and succinctness,” he says. “Less than five sentences is often abrupt and rude, more than five sentences wastes time.”
Use canned responses. If you get emails that require the same sort of answer over and over, consider creating a canned response. With just a click, your message will populate and be sent. A quick google search will help you find out how to create a canned response for your specific email client.
Use text expanders. Related to canned responses, consider getting a text expander. Text expander programs allow you to assign predefined keystrokes to complete words and phrases. Whenever you type that keystroke in, the text expander will type out the complete word or phrase. Typing out full words is for suckers.
Here are some text expander programs for the various operating systems out there:
- PhraseExpress (Windows 7)
- Texter (All other versions of Windows)
- TextExpander (Mac)
- AutoKey (Linux)
- AutoHotKey (Windows/Mac/Linux)
Use vacation responders. To reduce the amount of email that clogs up your inbox while you’re on vacation, make sure to use a vacation responder. That way people won’t keep emailing you again and again because they think you’re around and just not responding.
Use an email processing tool. If you’re still having trouble processing your emails, consider using a web app to help you get through them quickly and painlessly. Here are a few to check out.
Gmail Priority Inbox. If you use Gmail, give their Priority Inbox feature a whirl. When you turn it on, Gmail starts watching how you answer and process your email. Based on your behavior within the inbox, Gmail will start sorting your email automatically for you, putting your important stuff on top and not so important stuff on the bottom. It takes awhile for Priority Inbox to really work its magic, so be patient in the beginning.
Sanebox. Sanebox functions similarly to Priority Inbox, but works with multiple email clients. Besides filtering and sorting your email for you, Sanebox also offers some other useful features like one-click unsubscribe and follow-up reminders. Sanebox costs $5.79 a month.
Mailstorm. If you have a serious backlog of emails (I’m talking thousands), Mailstrom might be for you. Connect your Gmail account with Mailstrom and you’ll be able to sort all your email in ways you wouldn’t think of with Gmail’s default inbox. Quickly get rid of non-important stuff and just focus on the important emails.
The Email Game. If you’re like me, you sometimes have trouble knowing whether to respond, delete, file, or archive. What happens more often than not is I don’t take any action and just let the email sit in my inbox. The Email Game gives you a nudge by turning answering your email into a game. Just connect your Gmail account to The Email Game and start a new game. The Email Game will go through each email in your inbox and force you to respond, delete, archive, or skip. If you respond, delete, or archive, you earn points; if you skip an email, you lose points. When you decide to respond to an email, The Email Game only gives you three minutes to do so. If you don’t do it within the time limit, you lose points.
I’ll use The Email Game if I get particularly backlogged on emails. With its help, I can usually blast through all of them in a single session.
Mailbox. Mailbox is an email app for your iPhone and iPad that has received a lot of buzz recently. It’s supposed to help you get through your email quickly. I gave it a try (after being on the waiting list for a few months) and wasn’t too impressed with it. But that’s just my opinion. I know several folks that have had their email life changed by the app. To each their own.
That goes for all these methods, too. Try them out to see what works for you and experiment with other ideas as well. Time is the most precious thing a man possesses. Don’t let the email monster devour it and control your life – vanquish it from your kingdom and take your place on the throne of productivity and peace of mind!