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Editors Note: This is a guest article by Bret Beresford-Wood, founder and CEO of RepriseMail. RepriseMail is an app for Outlook that lets people discover, compare and improve how they use email. More info: www.reprisemail.com. (I have no association with, or financial interest in, RepriseMail.)

Email. It’s the app we love to hate. We’re overwhelmed by it most days, yet we couldn’t do our work effectively without it!

In our work with busy professionals we have identified five common email productivity killers. They are presented below in a self-assessment format so you can determine if your productivity is suffering from any of them. Also included are some suggested solutions you can use to make email more productive.

Email Productivity Killers Self-Assessment

1. Runaways

Description: A runaway email conversation occurs when two or more people are involved in an email-based dialog that extends beyond three replies.

Why it matters: People can effectively type forty to fifty words per minute. Those same people can speak about one hundred and fifty words per minute.  That means talking to someone is three times faster!  So, when an email thread extends beyond the simple communication of information and blossoms into an actual conversation, it is more efficient to talk in real-time.

What you can do:

  • If you are engaged in a runaway email thread, take the initiative and schedule a call or meeting.
  • If you are not engaged and you have no authority over those participating, politely ask to be removed from the thread, or consider right-clicking an email in the thread and using Outlook’s “Ignore” feature. (A word of caution: this will send the whole conversation, not just future postings, to the Deleted folder).
  • If you are not engaged and you are in a position of authority over some or all of those participating, explain to the others why runaway threads are unproductive and direct them to schedule a call or meeting.

2. Pounces

Question: Do you feel compelled to check your inbox all the time?

Description: Pouncing occurs when the email inbox is checked too frequently – more than four times per hour.

Why it matters: Productivity – getting things done – results from focused effort. Frequent inbox checks are self-inflicted distractions that reduce focus and adversely affect productivity. 

What you can do:

  • Determine what a reasonable response time is for email and base your inbox checks on that timeframe. For example, if fifteen minutes is an acceptable response time during the workday, then the inbox needs to be checked four times per hour.
  • Eliminate the self-inflicted distractions caused by new message alerts by turning them off. In Microsoft Outlook 2010, click File > Options > Mail > Message Arrival and uncheck the first, second and fourth box under When New Messages Arrive. 
  • Another way to minimize the psychological pull of the inbox is to minimize the email screen and avoid using your second monitor to display the inbox. This is a simple out-of-sight-out-of-mind trick that helps you focus on the task at hand.
  • Use timers – even something as simple as an egg timer – to remind you to check your inbox every fifteen minutes (or whatever interval you select).

3. Re-Reads

Question: Are you re-reading emails again and again?

Definition: Re-reads occur when no action is taken with respect to the contents of a message between reads.

Why it matters: Activity is motion; productivity is forward motion. Bouncing around the inbox re-reading messages is activity, not productivity. Re-reading messages is one way to manage the tasks embedded in email, but it’s inefficient. 

What you can do:

  • Following a simple read-and-act process can reduce re-reading. In Outlook, only a few configuration changes need to be made.
  1. Turn off the Reading Pane by clicking on View in the top menu > Reading Pane > Off. This will give you a simple list of emails in your inbox.
  2. Set Outlook to advance to the next email after “acting” on the open email. Click on File > Options > Mail. Scroll to the bottom of the screen and select “open the next item” in the drop down menu under Other. Now, when you click Delete or Move inside of an email, the next e-mail will automatically open. (Note, the Move command is located in the middle of the ribbon in every email.)
  • With these two settings changed, you can now quickly determine if an email can be Deleted or Moved, leaving in your inbox only those emails associated with tasks.

4. Hoarding

Question: Is your inbox filled with lots of old and unnecessary email?

Definition: Hoarding email in the inbox occurs when we fear losing valuable information, we lack understanding of how to process archival information better, and we haven’t been taught a better way to manage email. 

Why it matters: An overstuffed inbox can be overwhelming.  It’s also harder to find emails you need when they are intermingled among old and unimportant ones. 

What you can do:

  • First, make sure you are following the read-and-act process recommended above. The magic of this system is it de-clutters the inbox as you process messages. 
  • Second, archive messages you can’t delete. Organize folders based on the hierarchy of your work. For example, a professional service organization largely works on Clients and Matters. Corporations are generally structured around functions like Sales and Operations, then around Projects or Product Lines. With the basic structure established, archival email can be Moved to the folders you created with just one or two clicks. Note, too, that folders can be created on the fly by clicking Move > navigating to the area you want to create the new folder > New. Give the new folder a name and when you click Ok, the email is moved there and the next email in your inbox is opened automatically.

Think of these suggestions as a way of treating email like regular mail. With regular mail, we sort between junk mail (Delete), mail that needs to be filed (Move) and mail that contains action items (Leave in Inbox).

5. ASAPs

Question: Does email instill both a sense of urgency and anxiousness in you?

Description: Email instills both a sense of urgency and anxiousness in many people. The result is a constant need to check the inbox and respond as soon as possible.

Why it matters: By allowing email to drive our need to respond “ASAP,” we become enslaved to the tool. The urgency and anxiety that build up are defocusing and reduce productivity. In addition, these emotions have physical and psychological costs. They are stressors that contribute to illness and burnout.

What you can do:

  • In addition to the suggestions already given, there are a few things you can do to avoid responding ASAP:
  1. Realize that ultra-short replies don’t need to be sent. Examples include: “got it,” “will do,” or “very funny (LOL).” Instead of sending these, wait until you can send a more meaningful message after you’ve had time to do what was asked of you? Another suggestion is to start email replies with a formal greeting. This will evoke a more meaningful response.
  2. Consider how the instant response is perceived within your organization. Until recently, responding ASAP was a good thing. Today, email “addiction” is gaining attention. Consequently, people may wonder if you’re just focused on email responses and not focused on more meaningful work. 
  3. Periodically abandon your smartphone. Leave the smartphone in the car when you go into the restaurant – regardless of who your dining companions are – and in your office when you go to a meeting. The point of real-time engagement is to focus on those people regarding those topics, not to check email.
  • The larger effort is to put email in its rightful place as that relates to our hierarchy of needs and our priority of work. To be in command of our work and our life, we must necessarily act. This action – management of our behaviors and our focus – is something that must happen throughout each day. The alternative is to allow technologies like email dictate when and what is most important with little regard for our larger needs. Consider this the next time you reach to click on your email inbox during a conference call with your team or you reach for your smartphone at the dinner table. 

Small Incremental Changes Aggregate Over Time

Think about the questions posed above. Consider the productivity losses incurred by these all-too-common behaviors. Ask yourself if there are small changes you make that, when aggregated over the course of the next year, will make a big difference in how productive you are and how successful you feel.