Ah, email. It alternates between being my best friend and my worst enemy. I know I’m not the only enterprise worker who feels this way, given that we just surveyed 2,001 of them for our 2017-18 State of Enterprise Work report.
Our survey revealed that:
- 94 percent of knowledge workers use email to help manage their work.
- 53 percent say excessive emails get in the way of their work (rising from 43 percent last year).
- The average worker receives 68 emails per day, 60 of which require a response or some other action.
- 60 percent say that the time they devote to email could be spent more productively.
- 55 percent find lengthy emails and email threads problematic.
- 32 percent say that email in general is “a problem.”
To see more interesting stats about email, meetings, and automation in our new State of Enterprise Work report, click here.
Email is clearly an important tool in the modern work environment, but it creates almost as many productivity problems as it solves.
As an experienced electronic mailer myself, I’ve gathered up 10 tried-and-true email hacks that can help you spend less time reading and replying—and more time focused on the work you were hired to do.
Currently, workers spend just 44 percent of their time on their primary job duties. I think we can do better.
1. Skip the Folder System
There’s no shortage of advice out there for how to organize your inbox. Many choose to sort and file emails into folders on an ongoing basis, making dozens of micro decisions (Reply? Delete? File?) every time they enter their inbox.
But according to a field study by IBM Research, this may be a waste of time.
Researchers observed 345 long-term users who conducted more than 85,000 “refinding actions” and compared preparatory efforts (“creating complex folder structures” in advance or ongoing) and opportunistic methods (searching for an email only if and when you need it). The study finds:
“Our data support opportunistic access. People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success.”
2. Archive Almost Everything
Yes, it only takes minutes to label and file away emails as you go, and by golly, you have a system. But those minutes add up. If you can spend just 25 minutes on email twice a day, instead of 30 minutes, you’ll save almost an hour a week—or more than 40 hours per year.
Yes, everything will be jumbled together in one big folder, but you can always rely on your searching skills to find what you’re looking for, if and when you need it.
Using the Gmail app on an iPhone, emails can be archived with a single swipe vs. a multi-step process to file them into folders. It’s even faster to archive than it is to delete. If you’re not sure whether to keep or delete, err on the side of archiving.
3. Get Skilled at Search
You don’t have to remember the subject line of an email to be able to find it down the road. You can use search operators to:
- Search by sender or recipient.
- Search only for words in a subject line.
- Remove certain keywords from your results.
- Find messages with words near each other. You can even specify how many words apart the words can be.
- Limit your search to messages that contain attachments, and you can specify the kind of attachment: Google doc, spreadsheet, YouTube video, etc.
4. Communicate in Context
While the first three tips will help you deal with your email onslaught, the truth is, you’re still getting too much email. If you’re like the average worker who responded to our survey, you have 200 unread/unopened emails in your inbox right now.
To reduce the flood and help you keep on top of the details of your work, make sure all project-related communication happens in the space around the actual work.
How? By onboarding a work management tool that collects communication, collaboration, questions, answers, and more right alongside the documents, schedules, budgets, and other details that characterize a project.
You’ll still get notifications by email, so you know when something needs your attention, but this will greatly limit the amount of work time you spend in that inbox—getting distracted by every new incoming message.
5. Fill in the Sender Field Last
This simple tip prevents a common but potentially humiliating problem—sending emails prematurely, with blatant misspellings, half-formed ideas, or sentences that trail off.
If you make a habit of filling in the “to” field as your final step, after a quick proofread, you’ll be spared the embarrassment of accidentally emailing your team about a “wok at home” day. (“I’ll take some chicken stir-fry,” someone is sure to reply.)
And you’ll never find out all the different ways mistyping the word “public” can get you in trouble.
6. Use an Email Tracking Tool
You submitted an invoice almost 30 days ago and haven’t heard back. You sent a proposal to an executive last week, and you’re not sure if he or she has even read it.
Meanwhile, you have to spend precious mental energy weighing whether to follow up and when. Too soon and you can seem pushy. Too late, and you may miss your window.
With a free email tracking tool connected to your email, you’ll be able to receive alerts when emails are opened and attachments are read.
You can choose which emails to track by simply checking or unchecking a little box. You can even schedule an email to be sent at a specific time in the future—say 8:15 a.m. tomorrow, right when the recipient is likely to be checking email.
Not convinced this is a good idea? This article explains why email tracking isn’t creepy.
“I use HubSpot Sales to track emails,” says Workfront freelancer Angie Lucas.
“If I encountered that name for the first time today, I’m not sure I’d give it a second glance, since I’m not a salesperson. When I originally started using it, it was called something else. Name aside, it’s been a great tool for my freelance writing career.”
The tool lets her know whether an email has been read at all and how often it has been opened.
“If there’s lots of activity on an email, that’s a clue that the editor might be weighing my proposal and thinking about responding,” says Lucas, “or if I’ve sent a draft of an article, I can infer that someone is actively reviewing it, based on how often the email is opened.
"If I see no activity at all, I assume the email was overlooked, and I feel safe in following up.”
7. Get the Review and Approval Process Out of Your Inbox
Of all the business purposes that email is used for, it’s probably least suited to the review and approval process. Managing reviews by email sets you up for a variety of errors:
- Version control is impossible. (“Oh, I left my feedback on an earlier draft. Can you combine it with Joe’s feedback and send me a new final?”)
- It’s easy to overlook input. I know one remote designer who would copy and paste each person’s emailed comments into a master document and manually reorganize the comments by section, then print it out, and check off each comment with a red pen once the change was made. See any potential issues with this approach?
- Accountability is a challenge. Stakeholders can easily claim that they never received your email, that it got buried in their inbox, that they weren’t given enough time, or that they’re sure they already replied. It might even be true half of the time.
- Records are difficult to keep. If you have compliance regulations or policies around keeping approval records, email is the worst. You’d be better off printing out sign-off sheets to route with the content or making PDFs of the email approvals. And who needs more manual work?
Instead, like Workfront automate the entire process for you—collecting all comments and suggestions in a shared space in real time, sending automatic notifications and reminders, and easily revealing whose feedback is missing.
8. Start from Scratch After a Leave of Absence
A few years ago, when I returned to the office after maternity leave, I opened my inbox and almost couldn’t comprehend the number of unread emails before me.
So I did something radical—something that made at least one colleague’s jaw drop in horror. I selected every unread email that was more than a week old, and I hit the "delete" button. I sent every single one of them into the ether, and it felt SO good.
I confessed what I had done to my team, telling them if there was something that needed my attention, they’d need to send it to me again. If they couldn’t remember what they had sent me, it probably wasn’t important anyway.
And guess what? The sky didn’t come crashing down. The world didn’t end. I managed to get up to speed without wading through hundreds of old notifications, cc’s, and FYIs just to find the half-dozen or so emails that might still be relevant.
9. Take Advantage of Tabs in Gmail
Several years ago, Google introduced the tabbed inbox and automatically sorted your email into five categories: primary, promotions, social, updates, and forums.
“Gmail has somewhere between 450 and 550 different indicators of quality that help decide the fate of each email that’s delivered to Gmail,” says one email deliverability expert.
If you’re not taking advantage of the tech, it can be highly useful. Just remember to audit your tabs occasionally, making sure the mail you need to see is making it into the right category.
10. Go On an Unsubscribe Spree
Every few months, set aside 30 minutes to an hour and spend that time gleefully unsubscribing from email lists.
If you haven’t opened a particular newsletter in months, unsubscribe. If the content no longer feels relevant to your interests and goals, get off the list. Not sure whether you want to stay subscribed? Get rid of that, too.
If you find that you miss hearing from that particular brand or service, you can always resubscribe in two seconds flat.
Putting Email in its Rightful Place
If you remember the days before email—when it wasn’t possible to communicate with such asynchronous ease—you know how this one little tool has revolutionized the workplace. But if we’re not being mindful about how we use it, email can easily become our master instead of our servant.
Try one or more of these email hacks and see if you can regain a bit more time to focus on the work that really matters.
Find out why email isn't the best work management solution in our free white paper, The High Cost of Email And Spreadsheets in Your Agency.
About the Author
Heather has enjoyed playing the game of marketing for the past 15 years, at the agency and corporate level, in both B2C and B2B companies. She's run PR campaigns that took her from the MTV Beach House to NASDAQ and many media outlets and content channels in between. She is currently the Corporate Marketing Director at Workfront.Follow on Twitter More Content by Heather Hurst