In the Knowledge Economy, mastering email productivity is a key skill for any worker.
So we must learn how to be more productive on email to get things done faster. It’s about working smarter, not harder.
Email has transitioned from an asynchronous form of communication to an “always-on” technology.
And that’s why you need a plan of attack when it comes to email. How can you level up your email productivity? Process email faster to free up up time to focus on work and projects outside your inbox.
Here’s the truth:
Spending the day reading and replying to emails feels like work.
But email is a means to an end. It’s a tool to complete projects, solve bottlenecks, set meetings. It’s not the end itself. There’s a difference.
Here’s how to be more productive on email…
Email Productivity: Mindfulness and Process
To be more productive using email, you’ll need to master 2 pieces of the puzzle:
- Create a mindful routine that fits you and your needs
- Develop a system to process your inbox
In the first part, you’re redesigning your relationship with email.
Let’s be honest:
How you’ve been dealing with email so far isn’t working for you. How do I know? You’re reading this. And that means you’re ready to change.
The second part is about creating a better email experience altogether. This means developing a system to process your inbox and stepping up your email writing game.
Below you’ll find 23 email tips that will turn you from an email slave to an email productivity superstar.
Email Mindfulness: Redesign Your Relationship With Email
With hundreds of new emails per day, you need to protect yourself from overwhelm.
A few simple rules can go a long way to being more mindful when dealing with email.
1. Work Comes Before Email
Resist the urge to check email when you arrive at the office.
Here’s a reality check:
Email is where other people’s priorities live.
It’s someone else’s to-do list.
Instead, work on your most important task. Don’t use email as an excuse to procrastinate on what you’re supposed to do.
Opening emails before a block of deep work can take away your focus and motivation. You start stressing out and can’t get actual work done.
The first hours in the morning are usually the most productive. You’re full of energy, focused, and motivated.
Use them to produce real work.
Don’t waste your golden hours on unimportant emails.
2. Only Check Email 2x Per Day
A great email productivity tip is to reduce checking email to 2-3 times per day.
Schedule specific times in your calendar to process email. Treat checking emails as you would any other tasks: a to-do.
What’s the optimal time for your blocks?
Late morning works well. You have already completed some important tasks and are ready to help other people.
Reserve the other block for the end of the day/late evening. This will ensure nothing falls through the cracks before leaving the office.
Have an end time for each email block. One Pomodoro cycle (25 minutes) per session is more than enough to process email.
You’re not allowed to check email after that (don’t worry, they’ll still be on your inbox tomorrow).
3. No Email First Thing in the Morning
Instead, spend the first hour of the day on your morning routine.
When it comes to email, ignorance is bliss. If you don’t know what’s going on, it can’t hurt you.
4. Don’t Check Email During the Night
Checking email in the middle of the night will harm you.
First, the light will disrupt your sleeping cycle. And you might find an email that looks scary or urgent and then have a hard time trying to sleep again.
This is unnecessary and preventable.
Set this rule and you won’t have this problem again.
5. Turn Off Email Notifications
When you get an email notification, you’re forced to stop what you were doing. And each interruption hurts your productivity.
Because it takes around 23 minutes to refocus after an interruption (study).
Let me ask you this:
Do you open your emails every time you get a notification? Or do you ignore most of them?
If you’re not going to check email right away, why do you need the dings? Disable your notifications.
Don’t convince yourself that notifications allow you to keep track of things. Each one disrupts your flow (even when you don’t act on them).
Flow is a state of deep immersion in a task (known as “being in the zone”). A study showed that people who are in flow are five times more productive.
But flow is a hard state to reach. We have developed an almost Pavlovian response to notifications. And this is making us hyper-responsive to them.
Even if a single task switch doesn’t waste a lot of your time, there’s a compounding effect. Task-switching in your day can lead to as much as a 40% loss on your productivity (study).
6. Make Exceptions for Special People
Here’s the only exception to the previous email productivity rule:
Not all emails are the same. If you know that not replying to someone will hurt you or your work, you should do it.
So keep notifications for your VIPs.
Your boss, family or important clients might need fast responses.
7. Close Email After Each Session
Keeping the email client open in the background can distract you.
Perhaps you think it doesn’t affect your work. But your brain knows it’s there and spends energy monitoring it.
Make your email less available.
Close the tab, disable notifications, or even delete the app on your phone.
8. Set Expectations With an Autoresponder
Long-term sustainable email productivity is about selective ignorance.
Let people know you’re checking emails less often to be more productive.
Train other people to respect your productivity. You do this by setting an autoresponder indicating how often you respond to email.
Here’s an example from “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss:
“Due to high workload, I am currently checking and responding to email twice daily at 12: 00 P.M. ET [or your time zone] and 4: 00 P.M. ET.
If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12: 00 P.M. or 4: 00 P.M., please contact me via phone at 555-555-5555.
Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better.”
Here’s another example you can copy:
“Thank you for your email! Due to my current workload, I am only checking email at 11 am and 4 pm. If you need anything immediately please call me on my cell so that I can address this important matter with you. Thank you and have a great day!”
9. Say No (And Don’t Feel Guilty About It)
It’s possible to decline a request politely and move on without feeling guilty. When someone asks something from you, it can be hard to remember this option.
Saying no is its own skill. We start with limited experience but can get better at it over time.
Here are 4 effective ways to say no (from Essentialism, by Greg McKeown):
- The soft “no” (or the “no but”). Explain that you are focused on other things right now but would love to get together once you’re done with them
- “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” This will give you time to pause and assess your priorities. Take back control of your own decisions and don’t always say “yes” right away
- Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” Remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes and force them deal with the trade-off
- “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” It is tempting to think that our help is uniquely invaluable. But people don’t usually care if we’re the ones who help them — as long as they get the help
10. Become Hard to Reach
Make yourself less available. If you don’t want to be overwhelmed, limit the access people have to you.
This means living as asynchronously as possible and with minimal interruptions from coworkers.
If you explain the reason to do so, people will likely understand.
You’ll free up your inbox if you don’t share your email right away.
Receiving fewer emails allows you more time for other activities.
Email Processing: Creating a Better Inbox Experience
The other piece of the puzzle in your email productivity journey? Learn how to better process your inbox and step up your email writing game.
The rules below will turn anyone from an email newbie to an email master.
11. Turn Your Gmail Into a GTD Gmail
Here’s how my Gmail looks like:
I love this framework because it allows you to have:
- Inbox Zero: on the left side, easy to manage and fast to clean up
- GTD Gmail: your to-dos and references on the right side, helping you get things done
- To-Dos in the First Box: all items that I need to take action on are at the top. This makes it easier to grab them and use my effective to-do list format
- Reference in the Second Box: these are items that I need to check regularly, multiple times a day; I remove them when I don’t need them anymore
- 0 Plugins: you can build this framework using only standard Gmail features
Using this productivity system, your Gmail will double as an inbox as well as your task manager.
You can save all conversations that need action on – a reply, a reminder, or a task – while still keeping an inbox zero.
Want to copy my framework? Instructions on how to set it up on my GTD Gmail article.
12. Use a Workflow to Process Email Faster
Having a workflow for processing emails helps you make decisions. This means creating a methodical approach that will keep your inbox clean.
Drawing from “Getting Things Done”, think of every email you get as either something:
- You need to take action on
- Refer to later
Having only 3 possible types of actions simplifies processing email in bulk. Less is more.
You get an email from your boss about the latest project you’re involved in. This is a “take action on” type of email.
You quickly shoot a message for another member of the team to set up a meeting and discuss next steps. That’s a “track” type of email.
You then write some ideas relevant for discussion in that meeting and email yourself. You will need these notes in the meeting later this week, a “refer to later” type of email.
13. Touch It Once
You should only touch email (and every other task-based item) once. You may know this from the Getting Things Done method.
Every time you open a conversation, decide right away what to do with it.
Don’t postpone and come back to it. You touch it once and move on.
Archive the email straight after replying. This workflow helps you make decisions and quickly get to Inbox Zero.
Don’t open email when you know you can’t deal with it right away.
You might think “I’ll take care of this later” and move on to another task. But then you are creating a cycle. You’re postponing your action only to come back to it later and use more of your time and energy to decide what to do with it.
Each time you have to re-evaluate and reconsider what to do with an email, you are wasting time. Over a long period, this time adds up.
Here’s the rule:
Decide right away what to do with it.
- Open and respond
- Forward to the right person
- Write the necessary tasks on a to-do list immediately
Don’t open emails out of curiosity. If you touch it, take action.
14. Use the 2-Minute Rule
The 2-minute rule helps you get rid of a ton of unimportant things from your to-do list. By doing so, you can focus your time on finishing the most important ones.
It does wonders to stop procrastination on its tracks.
If an email takes less than 2 minutes to deal with, do it right away. Don’t add it to your to-do list and let it pile up.
By doing this you will be more productive and keep your inbox clean.
15. Consider Not Replying
Make your default behavior when receiving email to not respond.
There are obvious exceptions.
But by not replying, you reduce the amount of time you spend dealing with your inbox and the number of emails you receive.
16. Receive Fewer Emails
You have now designed a workflow for incoming email and a system for email productivity. So it’s time to reduce the number of emails you receive.
Workflow + System + Fewer Emails = More Time for Deep Work.
Here are 3 ways to receive fewer emails:
- Unsubscribe: from anything you don’t need—newsletters, groups, mailing lists, and notifications. You just cut the volume of emails received by 80% in one swoop
- Send fewer emails: to get less email, send less. The more emails you send, the more emails you receive. Not every email needs a response
- Don’t reply right away: many “urgent” emails tend to solve themselves if people don’t get a reply
17. Use Folders
With folders, you can filter the different actions you need to take on each email:
- Need to actively work on
- From your VIPs
Your inbox should only have emails that you need to deal with. It shouldn’t be a place where you store your emails indefinitely. Once you’re done reading or replying, archive the email.
Folders can also help you sort email before you’ve opened it.
The most simple would be to have an “action” and a “done” folder. This allows you to know what needs to get done and what you don’t have to worry about anymore.
Create your one system based on your own preferences using folders that best cater to you and your work.
18. Archive, Don’t Delete
Archiving emails is a better option than deleting them.
Need to find a document or an important conversation? Use search. You never know when you might need something from some time ago.
19. Create Templates for Common Emails
Sometimes, it can feel impossible to answer all the emails in your inbox.
Let technology do some of the work for you. By using email templates you won’t find yourself writing the same emails over and over again.
Templates help you save time and allow you to reply to a greater number of emails.
To learn how to easily create templates on Gmail, read my article on Gmail tricks.
20. Tell People What to Expect
Sometimes you can’t reply to an email because you lack information or time.
There’s a way to feel less guilty and decrease the other person’s anxiety about not having a response:
Send a quick expectation-setting email. Inform the other person you are aware of their email and briefly explain the situation.
Here’s an example:
“Hello Jane, thank you for your email. I need to get some things sorted with our team. I will back to you at around 3pm”
By doing this, they will be up to speed and be comprehensive about it.
21. Cut Down on the Back-and-Forth Emails
To cut down your email volume:
- Be specific. Always use the title to give a heads up to your reader about urgency and timeline. For example “Project due next monday”. This way, the reader knows that this email requires attention because there’s a deadline
- Cut to the chase. Nurture the skill of brevity. Don’t write ten sentences when you only need two. As a rule, try to reply to every email in three sentences or less
- State what you will do. If you don’t have time to do a certain task, don’t ask for more time. Say “I have two high priority tasks at hand right now. I will get this done by the end of day next Friday. Thank you for your patience.”
- Respond with statements: not “Maybe 10 or 11 am, what do you think?”; be assertive “10 am.”
- Ask clear questions. Stay away from open-ended questions. Instead, be crystal clear: “What do you need from me to get the project started right away? Let me know ASAP.”
- Stop asking unnecessary questions. This leads to follow up responses. Don’t ask “Does this make sense to you?”. Say: “Let me know if something wasn’t clear to you.”
22. Practice Good Email Etiquette
Mastering communication over email is an art. You want to be succinct but also get your message across. In an email, every word counts.
Here are six ways to get the results you’re looking for:
- Make it scannable. Use short paragraphs and formatting to make sure people read your content
- Avoid squishy words. Don’t use “I feel”, “I’m not sure”, or “perhaps”. Also, avoid the passive voice or any adverbs that create confusion and misunderstandings
- Know what you want. Think about the intended outcome of the email. Outline it first in plain-spoken language. With practice, this outline IS your email
- Bold the important. Need a reply from a particular person on a thread with multiple people? Put their name in bold with action items and timeline
- Keep conversations small. Only include the people who need to be a part of the discussion
- Forwarding code of conduct. Forwarding a massive email chain? Add a few bullet points as a quick summary at the top. Explain why you’re sending it and the action items you need from the other person
23. Get Personal (When Email Isn’t the Right Medium)
Email lacks social cues.
The tone of the message can vary and is open to the interpretation of the reader. Positive emails are interpreted as neutral, and neutral emails as negatively charged.
This makes email an awful medium for:
- Discussing delicate topics
- Controversial issues
- Reprimanding someone’s behavior
- Decision making
- Complex planning
- Other activities that benefit from human contact
When you perceive that email might not be the best communication medium, get personal.
Sometimes it’s easier to call or talk face-to-face. Personal interactions beat email any day of the week.
Work on Something That Excites You
It’s impossible to eliminate email from your life.
Using these email productivity best practices is the key to start the battle with an edge. Rule technology, instead of letting it rule you.
Don’t get me wrong. When used the right way, email can increase productivity. Unfortunately, that’s not how most people and companies use it.
We do spend a lot of time checking our inbox. And the reason is that most of the time we’re not working on something that excites us. So we procrastinate.
If you have a big goal to achieve, something that excites you, email will become secondary. And that’s because you actually want to reach this important goal.
So, when you’re dealing with email, ask yourself:
“Is this helping me reach my goals or am I just procrastinating?”
This simple question will help you shift your focus from email to making progress on your goals.