For more than two decades, email has been considered an efficient, inexpensive way to communicate with friends and colleagues. But when important messages are buried under an avalanche of newsletters, email alerts, flash sale flyers, and other marketing content, dealing with email can become a time-consuming nuisance.
Earlier this year, the technology marketing firm Radicati Group released its Email Statistics Report for 2020–2024, which predicts the number of worldwide email users will grow from over 4 billion in 2020 to nearly 4.5 billion by 2024. Email is still the most pervasive form of electronic communication for both business and consumer users, according to the Radicati report.
Further, a 2019 Adobe Email Usage Study of 1,002 adults in the United States reported that consumers spend more than three hours a day checking work email and two hours a day checking personal email.
Productivity experts call the ever-growing volume of email “productivity killers” that often steal precious time and increase our stress levels. And they offer ideas on ways to use tools and systems to keep inboxes under control.
Adopt a folder system
Productivity specialist Cathy Sexton relies on a series of folders to help keep her emails organized. Sexton, who owns The Productivity Experts, a St. Louis consulting firm, sorts her emails into five folders labeled: clients and prospects, administration, programs and services, personal mail, and support teams. She also adds subfolders under each main folder for specific projects or clients.
Sexton checks her email three or four times a day and evaluates each one to determine if she can delete it right away or forward it to someone else. She answers those that can be handled with a quick response, files what she needs to keep in the appropriate folder, and leaves any email requiring a lengthy response or research in her inbox until she has time to properly handle it.
“This is an easy way to stay organized and move most emails out of your inbox,” Sexton said. The ability to find emails you need to refer to later is an added bonus of having a filing system, she added.
Use email filters
Technology can do more than help keep your inbox organized, including capturing junk mail before it even hits your inbox, according to Maura Thomas of Austin, Texas, a speaker, author, and creator of the productivity training firm Regain Your Time.
Myriad email control apps are available, but Thomas subscribes to Throttle, a management tool that helps keep her inbox under control. When online commerce sites require users to provide their email address for receipts and updates, they also use those addresses to deliver mountains of emails to their customers’ inboxes. The Throttle extension creates a unique email address to fill out any requests for email addresses on websites and then collects any incoming emails into a single daily digest that you can view at a time of your choosing.
“You never have to give your real email address to a website again,” Thomas said about Throttle’s benefits.
She also uses an app called SpamDrain, a filter that captures junk email before it makes its way into your inbox because it works effectively with Throttle. “I use SpamDrain in tandem with Throttle to deal with senders that already have my real email but that I wish didn’t,” she said. Like Throttle, it creates a digest you can review at any time.
If you would prefer not to use an app, most email programs allow users to establish filters, or rules, for handling incoming messages. Whether you are on a subscription list for news on tax laws or updates on important issues affecting your profession, you can set up a filter that will direct those emails into a specific folder for later reference when you have more time.
“It is easy to set up rules that automatically direct your incoming emails from specific domains into designated folders or to forward them to an assistant or co-worker’s inbox,” Thomas said. You can even create a rule to automatically delete emails from certain domains. Most email platforms have a setting with instructions on how to set up email rules and filters.
Avoid treating email like dialogue
Email is not an online conversation but designed to be a one-way channel to communicate information, said Marsha Egan, the Nantucket, Mass., author of Inbox Detox. Using email as a back-and-forth dialogue makes it impossible to create the large uninterrupted chunks of time you need to perform important tasks that have deadlines attached. It also creates the expectation that you must be constantly available to respond to messages immediately.
If you just need a quick conversation with someone, a telephone call might suffice, she added.
Don’t allow email to interrupt work
Every time you interrupt your workflow to check an email, it takes about four minutes to refocus and get back to work, Egan said. That adds up to a lost hour of time if you were to check email 15 times over the course of a workday. And a University of California, Irvine study shows that people try to compensate for lost time due to interruptions by working faster, which can cause additional stress.
Instead, Egan said she advises that individuals minimize the alerts and pop-ups or turn email off to avoid the temptation of checking messages. Most email platforms have settings you can use to reduce the constant flow and deliver messages to your inbox every few hours or just once a day, she said.
Realize as well that you control your email, not the other way around. “Take ownership of your inbox and turn your email off when you are engaged in other activities,” she said.
Avoid reply all
Group emails can be the kiss of death to productivity, Sexton said. “When you reply to everyone in a cluster email, it clogs up everyone’s inbox,” she said. Don’t reply to all if you are simply acknowledging receipt of the email or making a comment directed specifically to the sender, she added.
There are other programs that better facilitate communicating in a group setting. Work management platforms like Asana or Basecamp are great tools for teamwork. “When my team wants to check in for a quick conversation, we use Slack,” she said.
Don’t skim and skip emails
Productivity experts agree it is best to carve out specific times during the day to take action on your emails as they arrive in your inbox rather than skim through them between meetings or while waiting in line at the grocery store. According to Thomas, when people don’t allow time to really deal with their email in a thoughtful way, they scan for messages that seem easy or critical to deal with, leaving anything that seems more complicated until later, she said.
“The problem is, ‘later’ never comes,” she added. “Some messages may look daunting at first glance, but if you make a commitment to read it through, you’ll see that it might turn out to be easier than you think. And if it’s as complex as it looks, you’ll be glad you got a jump on it.”
Think before you send
The bottom line, according to Sexton, is to consider the purpose of your email before you send it to determine if it is really necessary. “Think about why you are sending it and why it is important,” she said. “If you are considerate of your colleagues’ inboxes, they are likely to return the favor and be considerate of yours.”
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