If you’re struggling to keep your inbox in check, it’s easy to work hard all day without actually achieving much.
No matter who you are or what you do, there’s one term that’s certainly relevant to your job: productivity. It’s not simply a measure of how many hours you’ll work today. Nor is it necessarily a measure of how much you’ll get done in those hours. There’s no point in being efficient if what you’re getting done isn’t actually that important.
In many roles the definition of productivity revolves around the idea of getting things done that matter. This is where technology can help you sink or swim, depending on whether you use it to help you perform important tasks more efficiently or whether technology simply generates busy work to chew up your time.
Take a look at your average week and see if you can spot the productivity sinkholes. You might think the big dangers are getting distracted by Facebook, YouTube and other social media, but chances are your email inbox will be one of the biggest culprits. Your average office worker spends more than two hours every day dealing with email, according to a McKinsey report.
Unless your business card says “Inbox Triage Specialist”, checking your email probably isn’t your actual job. Email is simply a tool, so you need to make it work for you rather than against you.
It’s important to develop a healthy email culture within your organisation. Simple things like cracking down on over-sharers, CC addicts and Reply All fiascos can help reduce the clutter in everyone’s inboxes. Introducing a few guidelines as to when it’s better to send an email, shoot off an instant message, pick up the phone or slip an envelope into the internal mail can also help streamline communications so people can spend more time focusing on the important tasks at hand.
Waging war on email timewasters can seem futile, but there are also a few key defences you can put in place. The first is to come to grips with email filtering, whether it is on the server or on your end device.
Run your eye down your inbox and look for the most common emails which simply get in the way and make it harder to find the important messages. Try automatically shifting these emails into specific folders, according to sender or subject, so you can easily find them and deal with them later. Even the ability to flag, label or colour code incoming emails can make life easier. If certain spam always makes it past your defences, try deleting it automatically with a filtering rule.
Filtering your email can make a huge difference when it comes to wading through your inbox, especially if it lets you quickly deal with similar emails in batches. If you find yourself constantly bashing out the same replies, try saving the text as a keyboard shortcut. Alternatively, you might save it as an email signature so you can easily call upon it.
You might consider filtering emails from important people, such as your boss, into specific folders but it can be easy to miss emails buried away in subfolders when checking your messages from handheld devices.
It’s probably a better approach to ensure that the most important emails end up in your main inbox, while as much chaff as possible is filtered into subfolders.
If you jump between devices you’ll also find it easier to use IMAP-based email and server-side filtering, rather than relying on Outlook or Apple Mail to filter emails after they arrive on your desktop computer.
You can also go on the email offensive by sending more effective emails, becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Start by choosing a useful subject line, selecting your recipients with care and then writing succinctly. It sounds obvious, but a look at your inbox will reveal too many shotgun emails sprayed at everyone with vague subject lines such as “Important Email”.
If you need something important done, don’t bury it behind vague subject lines and slabs of text.
Years of email fatigue has taught people to skim through emails causing them to look for the first actionable task and then ignore the rest. Don’t ask too many questions in one email, because you’ll probably only get an answer to the first.
Often a few short, sharp emails can be more effective than a rambling essay. If you can’t sum it up in a few sentences then maybe picking up the phone or dropping by their desk would be more effective. It’s important to choose the best tool for the job.
David Hancock is the founder and managing director of Geeks2U, a national on-site computer repair and support company.