Are you wasting too much of your working hours managing and responding to emails?
It’s time to talk about email productivity.
While email is a fantastic tool that has many benefits it can also become a burden to your productivity.
If you want to get more done and feel more relaxed and make more money then you have to spend less time staring at your inbox.
Ready to take back countless hours and learn how to achieve inbox zero without wasting your day?
I have some tips that will help.
Some of you might be asking “What does Inbox Zero Mean?”
Inbox Zero is an email management philosophy that focusses on ways to keep your email inbox empty or as close to empty as possible.
Email has become one of the biggest distractions preventing us from getting work done and without any training at school on how to efficiently manage an email account and stay organized most people are doing it all wrong.
Part of the problem is trying to reply to all of your emails as soon as they come in to try and make sure your account is empty and that you have achieved something.
The truth is, replying to all of your emails isn’t an achievement, it’s often just delaying the real work that needs to be done in your business.
While the concept of inbox zero is, of course, making sure your inbox isn’t clogged up, there are more effective ways of achieving this that don’t involve living inside your email account and spending your whole day replying.
It’s always best to start at the source of the problem and there are several ways you can reduce the number of emails you are receiving in the first place.
Go through the following and you will already be able to reduce the number of emails you have to deal with significantly.
- Unsubscribe – We all sign up for email newsletters and opt-ins we no longer read or need. Try performing an audit of the regular emails you are getting and either ignoring or trashing every week.
- Only send essential emails – If you reduce the number of emails you send then it’s a given that you will also receive less. Consider if you need to send an email or if you can batch what you want to say into fewer responses.
- Delayed responses – It’s easy to reply to an email and before you know it, you are using email like it’s live chat. By doing this you can end up perpetually replying to the same person without actually getting any work done.
- Keep it succinct – When writing emails, be as concise as possible and you will save time and reduce the number of things your recipient can respond to in their follow up email.
- Are there better alternatives? – Sometimes there’s a better way to resolve a query. Consider if it’s better to jump on a call, skype, live chat or log the issue in a productivity tool like Asana.
Types of Email
Email is a means of communication that is used for different types of conversation.
These could include exchanges with clients, inquiries, support questions, newsletters, company updates, sales reports or status updates from colleagues, the list goes on.
The most effective way to group and categorize these emails is by the action that needs to be taken.
Your emails should fall into one of the following:
- Respond today / Urgent – These are priority emails you can respond to immediately or the same day. Either respond or mark as “To-Do”.
- Respond later – These are emails you can respond to at any time, add a task to your calendar at a suitable time and move them to your “To-Do” folder.
- Optional response – Respond if you are feeling chatty or nice but leave if you are busy and save time.
- Not important – Archive or delete these depending on whether they contain something that might be useful later.
- Read later – Either snooze until a later time or file them in a relevant folder and optionally you can add a task to your calendar too.
- File them – Emails that you have read and just need to be filed so you have a record of them. Add them to a relevant label or folder. Examples could include receipts from Paypal, travel documents etc.
Now, the powerful part of this that ensures you stay organized is created the relevant labels or folders to file your emails in after you have checked them.
You may want some folders that are highly specific to your business but there are a few that should exist in everyone’s inbox.
- Awaiting Reply
- Follow up
You will see why these are useful in a moment.
Inbox Zero Process
To maintain harmony in your inbox try adopting a process so you can take different actions based on the type of email you are dealing with.
I use the below approach where I first consider if an email is urgent and requires my attention immediately or if I can handle it later.
If it’s an email that isn’t urgent but won’t take much time or disrupt my productivity then I will also handle it then and there.
If it will take more time or isn’t a priority then I mark the email as “To-Do” which moves it to a specific folder with the same name.
In Gmail, these folders are actually referred to as labels.
When you come across an email that requires attention or is easy to respond to now, take action and reply to the email.
If you need to track the email or follow up again later mark the email as “Awaiting Reply” or “Follow Up” depending on the situation.
At the end archive any emails that no longer require your attention in case you need them for reference later
Any emails you want to keep track of, mark as “track” so they are moved to your track folder.
This approach will allow you to rapidly work through your inbox in record time enabling you to get back to the work that matters to your business.
Choice of Email Client
Depending on how you access your email, the tools available to you to improve your email productivity may vary, however, most email clients these days provide similar facilities.
There is one exception, Gmail and their premium email offering G-Suites are leaps and bounds ahead of any other webmail or email client solutions and what I recommend to my students, clients and use myself.
G-Suites does come at a premium but at only a few dollars a month is a no-brainer even for the lean start-ups out there.
Gmail features the most user-friendly user experience and features plenty of power tools and integrations to turn your email interface into a fully fledged CRM.
A lot of the tips in this article are written with Gmail users in mind though where possible I do try and explain how the same solutions can be achieved with alternative email clients like Outlook, Apple’s Mail app and my favorite standalone email client, the open source Thunderbird from Mozilla.
The worst email interface tends to be the kind of web-based mail provided within CPanel, if you have an email account that is self-hosted you are better off downloading Thunderbird.
Schedule / Stagger Responses
If you don’t want to end up going back and forth with people over email try this simple trick.
Don’t send straight away.
Even if it’s an email that falls under the “easy to reply” category, consider scheduling it to be sent several hours in the future.
This will allow you to spend time working through the rest of your emails or actually getting work done before more emails start arriving.
There’s nothing worse than trying to work through your emails and you are getting replies before you have even cleared the rest of your backlog.
With Gmail you can easily add scheduling by installing the Streak extension, however, Google’s new Inbox app has a “Send Later” feature built-in.
If you are using Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird then you can search their extensions stores for an alternative.
One great feature that is available as part of the Streak add-on for Gmail is snoozing. If you prefer to remove emails from your line of sight so they aren’t a distraction while you work through what’s urgent, one option is to use the snooze button.
Simply install the Streak extension for Chrome or Firefox and when you select emails you will have the additional option to snooze them.
You can set the number of minutes or hours you want to snooze for or set the specific time and date you want the email to be redelivered to you on.
These emails are also placed in a “Snoozed” folder so you can always pull them back up if you change your mind.
This is similar to using our methodology of marking as “To-Do” and might work better for some.
If you are extremely busy and unable to reply relatively quickly you might want to consider setting up an aut0-response that politely explains to people emailing you that you are currently too busy to reply and will respond as soon as you have time.
I create a culture with my clients to help them understand that I spend the majority of my day doing deep work with my phone on airplane mode and my email inbox closed.
Help educate your customers to the fact you are busy doing the actual work and not able to respond at the drop of a hat.
If you explain to people that to be more productive you can’t be checking your email every hour, they will understand and respect your honesty and forward-thinking attitude.
Send something like:
“Hello, thank you for getting in touch, due to my current workload, I am only checking my emails periodically at <insert time> and <insert time> each day. If it is urgent then people either contact me at email@example.com or call me on my phone or Skype and I will try and respond as promptly as possible. Thanks for your time and have a nice day.”
You can, of course, adapt this to whatever works best for you but when I need to use this feature, I use the above.
Labels & Filters
As mentioned earlier Gmail calls folders “Labels” and these are essential for making sure you maintain inbox zero and keep your emails properly organized.
Another important feature to consider is Gmail Filters.
Filters allow you to set rules that automate the filtering and organization of your inbox.
One of the best ways to tidy up your inbox and make sure it only shows you critical emails is to set up some filters to set emails from specific senders to skip the inbox and automatically go into labels.
This way you don’t have to archive and file all of these non-urgent emails yourself and can save time before you get started.
I like to use this feature to filter any emails like newsletters I subscribe to and receipts from Paypal and other websites I use regularly.
You can filter emails based on the email address sending them, the subject line and other sets of criteria.
Email Templates / Swipe Files
Do you have emails you write over and over again? Often using the same language? One great productivity hack is to create email templates or swipe files you can use an infinite number of times without having to type them up each time.
Even if you have emails you send which follow a similar framework, you can write it out once, save it as a template and use it again and again.
Depending on which email client or service you are using this feature may or may not be available but with Gmail this can be achieved with either the Streak extension or the Canned Responses Add-On (mentioned later).
This is a massive time saver when you accumulate the number of times you type out similar emails on a monthly or yearly basis.
I create email templates for all sorts of things including:
- Email Blogger Outreach
- Customer support responses
- Quote requests
- HARO Submissions
- General email intros
- New customer questions
- Guest Blogging Pitches
- Pinterest Group Board Requests
Sure you could save them as Word documents and copy and paste them each time but that’s no way near as efficient as having access within 2 clicks of your inbox.
Reply inline (with Quotes) or Using Different Colors
Ultimately any of your important emails that warrant a response need to be addressed and replied to.
One way to make responding to long-winded emails a lot easier is to either:
a) Reply inline using Quotes
b) Using different colors to respond to different parts of the email.
This can help you to avoid writing an essay in response.
Most email clients will give you the ability to use different colors and provide a formatting tool to quote parts of the email you are responding to.
I personally use G Suite / Google Apps for Business which is essentially the premium version of Gmail + a handful of other business tools.
In free or premium Gmail (they are very much the same) you can click on the formatting bar and click the quotes icon, then paste a section from the email you are replying to and hit enter which ends the quote section.
Check Email Less Often
If like most people who work at a computer, you keep your email open and check it constantly it’s time to try another approach.
- Schedule 2 or 3 times each day where you can check your email and respond.
- Don’t keep your email open in another browser tab.
- Use the Pomodoro technique to avoid burnout and spending too long on emails.
- Mute notifications.
These few changes will help to clear your headspace and avoid distractions at the root of the problem.
While checking your email may only take a minute, it’s easy to get distracted by a subject line and before you know it 30 minutes have passed and you still haven’t got anything constructive done.
Related: Read my guide to the best productivity tips and learn every trick, hack, and system I use to maximize productivity.
Should You Be Using Email?
Depending on the type of conversation you are having, you may want to ask if it’s suitable for email.
If you are communicating with colleagues internally or on clients about specific aspects of a project you might find using a project management tool or enterprise resource planner is far more effective.
For these situations, I like to use Asana.
Asana is an extremely powerful tool that allows you to discuss projects at length without losing details in busy email threads that still contain outdated info.
To learn how you can replace certain emails with a project management software read my guide on ways you can increase your productivity with Asana.
Email Add-Ons & Plugins
Depending on your choice of email provider or client the plugins available will differ greatly so you should consider what tools are available when deciding what to use.
I recommend G-Suites, which is Google’s premium business solution which includes an upgraded version of Gmail.
Fortunately, the free version of Gmail works with most plugins and extensions too.
Streak is a CRM add-on that installs customer relationship management functionality into your Gmail interface.
You can use it to create pipelines, manage tasks and much more but my favorite features have always been the ability to snooze emails and schedule my replies to send later.
If you use Gmail or G-Suites and haven’t tried Streak, you should make this the next tool to add to your stack.
The benefits of using Streak include:
- Follow-up reminders
- Create mail merges for mass email
- Save email snippets (same as canned emails)
- Manage pipelines & deals.
- Create Tasks
- Assign notes to email threads
- Track outgoing emails
Streak has both a free and premium version though I use the free version myself.
I have been using it for a number of years and while I don’t use all of the features, the ones I do use I couldn’t live without.
Another great tool for creating pre-written email templates you can quickly send to customers instead of writing the same or similar emails twice.
This is a great option for those who just want an email templates feature without installing Streak which comes with lots of other bells and whistles.
This extension can be installed for free by going to your settings icon in Gmail and then going to “Labs” and look for “Canned Responses” then enable it and it will be active when you go back to your inbox.
Now when you compose an email a new option will appear in the bottom right that allow you to both save and load different email templates you regularly need.
Ever hit the send button too soon? Because of a clumsy click or because of another malfunction? I know I have and even though I often schedule emails in the future allowing me to go back and review them before they send, accidents happen.
Most people don’t know you can undo a sent email and technically you can’t, at least not without this tool.
Undo send which is also available in the “labs” section of your Gmail settings allows you to set a cancellation period.
What this does is automatically adds a delay each time you send an email, enabling you to cancel it provided you do so within this time limit.
Go to the main settings page to set the time limit you want to use.
When you send an email you will see a yellow “Undo” bar at the top that lasts for the duration of your cancellation period.
This has saved me many times.
The Art of Email Productivity
If you have ever stressed over not getting enough done thanks to emails taking all day then I feel your pain.
I have been there, trust me.
But there’s no need for it to continue, now you know that with the right system in place you can tame the burden of the unruly inbox and take back control.
Give the tips and tricks in this article a try and I assure you that you will have achieved a Zen-like state in no time.
You are on a roll, if you want to learn more ways I stay productive, why not check out my Productivity Tools Guide.