How to improve email productivity

10th December 2013

Email is someone else’s to-do list for you

The idea that email can be more of a hinderance than a help to productivity is not a new one. Email is the main tool for communication in most offices today, but managing emails has become a task in itself. The more you receive, the less productive you can be in other areas. A popular Linkedin post by Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, outlined four ways in which email kills productivity, which are paraphrased here:

  • Email demands too much of your time – The average corporate user will spend two hours and 14 minutes today (and every workday) on email, according to McKinsey’s 2012 Social Economy report.
  • Email is not designed for collaboration or sharing – The problem is that email is linear – It works OK at one-to-one communication but breaks down when more people and interaction enter the picture.
  • Knowledge gets trapped in your inbox – McKinsey estimates that unlocking this accumulated knowledge trapped in the inbox could boost productivity by up to 14 percent.
  • Email is anti-social – All too often, the inbox is a graveyard. Brilliant messages and sparkling insights are carefully typed up and mailed, read by one person and then promptly forgotten.

One way to avoid the constant intrusion and distraction of emails is to switch them off. It’s a simple idea that has been adapted in various ways, from the short ‘power hour’ focusing on one task without checking emails to the more extreme approach of checking emails only twice a day. Fundamentally, though, the principle is the same – tasks can be completed more quickly and with more focus without you inbox constantly nagging for attention.

But minimising the time you spend dealing with email won’t just free up time elsewhere. Other benefits of this approach include:

  • Better communication – Email is notorious for creating confusion and drawing out conversations. When people know that you are out of touch via email and need to get in touch, they will pick up the phone and you’ll find that discussions become much clearer and quicker.
  • Clearer priorities – One of the dangers of constantly checking your inbox is that it begins to dictate your day and take you away from tasks that you should be focusing on. What may seem like a quick response to an email becomes a more significant time-drain when you add it to all the other ‘quick responses’. Dealing with your main priorities before your emails will make for a more productive day.
  • Less stress – A study from UC Irvine in California found that the regularly checking emails causes humans to go into a state of ‘high alert;. Only after a five-day break from email do people return to normal. Stress is not good for productivity and, more importantly, not good for your health.

Email has become a fundamental tool of the modern workplace. There is increasing activity amongst companies offering alternative collaboration and communication solutions, but it’s likely email is here to stay – at least for some time. The key is to recognise some of the ways in which email can be managed effectively and tailor them to your own working patterns and requirement.

If you have any email management tips of your own, then let us know in the comments!

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