How to be an email superstar

Thank you for opening this email; I appreciate it. I know that this is just one of hundreds of emails you will receive today and so I am grateful that you chose to open mine. Typically, each of us now receives 300 emails per day. The average office worker is spending three hours a day processing emails. And most of that is unnecessary. You already know that you get loads of emails that are unwanted time-wasters. However, you have to open them before you discover that. There are countless studies on the impact of email, and they continue to show that we waste about two hours a day dealing with unnecessary messages. And we are all getting tired of it.

Yet, when you look at the way people use email, it turns out that we tend to create the problems ourselves. We are our own enemies.

For instance, there is a good chance that you are looking at this email on a mobile device. Over half of emails are opened on a phone or tablet nowadays. That seems to make sense because it means we can process the emails when we are out and about, apparently saving time. However, it takes more time. It turns out that there are two problems with accessing emails on a mobile phone. The first issue is readability. The narrow width of the screen and the fact we need to scroll to see whole messages means it is slower to read each individual email than if we looked at it on a desktop machine. Multiply that by hundreds of emails a day, and we are spending more time dealing with email than we think. Worse still, is the fact that most people who process emails on their phone, repeat the work later in the day on a desktop device. Almost all email that is opened on a mobile phone is subsequently re-opened on a desktop. We are dealing with almost every email twice – doubling the amount of work we do. 

On top of this, when you ask people do they know about email filters in programs like Outlook or on services like Gmail, most of them say “yes”. Then if you ask if they use them, they come up with some lame excuse such as, “I am going to, but haven’t got round to it yet”. No, they haven’t “got round to it” because they are wasting too much time dealing with unfiltered emails. 

Then there are psychological effects of email. A year or so ago I was with a client who was moaning about the pressure of email overload. I asked him how he dealt with emails, so he showed me that he had an inbox and several sorted archive folders, allowing him seemingly to organise things. But I noticed a problem; his inbox had 3,500 unread emails. “I know I should sort them,” he said, “but there’s just too many, and I simply can’t face them” The massive amount of unread email staring him in the face was having a negative effect, making him depressed about email. Another psychological effect of emails was discovered in a study by Microsoft. They found the true impact of “attention shift”. This is when you stop doing one thing for a moment and then have to return to it later. Your attention is moved from the task in hand, to something else and then you have to get your mind back in gear to the original work you were doing. Microsoft’s study found that even opening an email – not reading it – just looking at the notification, for instance, led to an attention shift of 15 minutes. Another study found that it was 23 minutes. In other words, when you get interrupted by an email it is 15-23 minutes before your brain is back in gear on your original work. That just crushes your productivity.

So, what can you do about this – and all the other problems with email? The first is to create yourself a “policy” – preferably write it down. Your policy might be to only deal with email a couple of times a day. Set those times, stick to them and close down your email program in between times. Studies show that having two to four email slots a day works well. 

The next thing is to set up those filters you know you can create. You might want to filter out all email where you are only “CC’d”. You are not the intended recipient, so you don’t need to read it. Such email can be filtered into a folder you could deal with once a week, for instance. You can also filter emails from particular people or companies, on specific projects, sent from certain countries and so on. Create filters that work for you. Spending half a day this week setting up all your filters will save you weeks of time for the rest of the year.

There are, though, several methods of managing your emails which make you even more productive. For instance, to handle all your newsletters you can use Owletter. This is promoted as a means of monitoring your competitor’s newsletters because you sign up with an email address they cannot link to you. Therefore you can sign up to receive your competition’s newsletters without them knowing. However, Owletter has an advantage even if you don’t want to monitor the competition. It collects all your newsletters in one place. That means you can sign up for newsletters and not be interrupted by their emails. Instead, you can timetable a “newsletter reading morning” and go to see the latest newsletters stored for you in your Owletter account.

You can also save time with email templates. Much of what we write in emails is repetitive. You waste days of work each year typing the same things over and over again. You can get back much of this time by using templates. If you use Outlook it is easy – you can set up your own templates. If you use Gmail, you can set up templates with Gorgias or Gmelius, for example. 

One of the issues with email is that it is presented to us as a list. You check your inbox and all you see is a list, often with text that is meaningless or confusing because the individual sending the message has given no attention to the subject line. Most people do not think in list-like ways. And even those who do, do so because it gives them structure. The list of incoming emails is random, without any apparent meaning. All that does is slow us down. Engaging with email in the first place is a real problem for your brain – you get confused, distracted and put into a negative frame of mind. So, you can use other methods of accessing or organising your inbox. For example, a new app for Gmail called Drag, allows you to sort your inbox in a more visual way. If you are an Outlook user, you can get improved visual organisation of emails by combining what you do in Outlook with Microsoft OneNote. Or you could use FocusMe

Indeed, there are dozens of apps and programs available that make your email system work much better. Remember, email was invented in the 1970s and, frankly, the system has changed little since then. Outlook, Gmail, Hotmail and so on, have only had small cosmetic changes since they were introduced. Gmail was launched on 1st April 2004 and is pretty similar now to what it was then. Basic email applications are focused on sending and receiving messages – that’s all. They are not designed around making those message systems productive for human use. That’s up to you. If you don’t adapt your email system to make it better for you psychologically and more productive for you in the office, there is only one certainty. Based on current trends it means that within the next couple of years instead of spending three hours a day on email, it will be around five hours a day. How productive are you going to be? How happy will you be? 

The time has come to change the way we do email. 

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