This is the essential guide to email productivity that will help you stop inbox overwhelm and take back control over your work and life.
Email management has and will remain an important part of work productivity.
In this guide, you will learn how to tame your email and reclaim your work productivity.
Specifically, you'll discover:
Keep in mind that email productivity all starts with the right mindset and a productivity-focused email client.
And equally important, know when email isn't the best medium.
Let's dive in.
Know When Email Is Not the Best Medium!
This should be the very first place to start in your email productivity.
Email is great when:
- it is a long distance communication,
- giving simple instructions or information,
- you want a permanent record, maybe for a legal reason,
- you can give people time to respond,
- communicating with lots of people who are based in different places,
- sending documents to office employees,
- scheduling your message to send later. As of now, messaging apps do not have this feature, except for Telegram.
Now, when is email NOT the best medium?
Email is an essential communication platform but not all communication should be done via email. It's important to know when to use other media to communicate your message. For example:
- Important communication should be done in meeting.
- The best medium for urgent matters is a phone call or face to face meeting if you're working in the same physical place.
- Complex matters that require deep discussions would require creative facilitation processes.
- When you want to teach, do it physically when you can or use an online teaching platform if it's an online course. Interactions, exchanges and assignments are what makes training work.
- Drawings and images may be better presented in a gallery or exhibition.
- Emotions are better expressed in a private talk, with a great deal of trust and an open mind and heart.
- Confidential matters could be much better kept using a legal agreement.
- Something negative or sensitive could require special care and skills.
- When you don't want a trace of your communication, avoid email.
This is not an exhaustive list of occasions when you should not use email. In fact, the same thing could be better done via email today but in a meeting tomorrow. And certain communications requires more than one medium.
So before sending your next email, ask yourself, is it the best medium? What other media can I use to communicate this? Which is the best one?
The Right Mindset for Email Productivity
It took me more than a decade to realize if you can't get the right mindset for email management, you can never reclaim control over your work and life no matter what you do in the steps that follows.
So, what does email mean to you?
Here are 5 of the mindsets that you should adopt for email productivity:
- Email is not productivity tool, but only a medium of communication. More often than not, email doesn't get things done. It's just a way to communicate. It could be something to get done, but mostly email is about information that could be conveyed better in other form of communication.
- It is only one of the other daily tasks that you need to complete. Unless you're an email support staff member or work remotely (like me), your tasks come from several sources such as direct instructions, meetings, and messaging.
- Email is just one of many ways to communicate. Remember that there are several other ways to communicate at work. In fact, face to face conversations, phone calls, messaging, and meetings are just a few of them. Before sending an email, ask yourself is it the best medium?
- If possible, do important communication in meetings, not via email. Even better, do both. But if you have to chose one over the other, go for meeting.
- Urgent issues should addressed on a phone call or a face to face conversation. A productive team know that a face to face conversation or a phone call is more efficient to communicate and handle urgent matters.
Whatever your mindset is for email management, treat email as a task, not as a productivity platform!
Importance of a Unified Inbox for All Email Accounts
As a freelancer, chances are that you have at least three email accounts, let alone those you've abandoned or whose password you forgot years ago.
I have 10 email accounts I use regularly. (Most of them are hosted on Microsoft 365.)
Here are three reasons it is important to have all email accounts in one place:
- It saves time. Imagine how much time would I waste if I had to go from one email account to another. Not me of course, but I am very surprised a lot of freelancers are actually doing it!
- You won't likely miss out on important emails. Although you make it a daily habit to switch from one email account to another, you can never be in control. You might be on your sixth account when you get a phone call that comes with work. Then that day, you missed out on an important email in the seventh account.
- You'll be less anxious about email management. If you work in an office environment, email is still an important part of your work communication. You can easily feel anxiety that comes from your effort to stay on top of it.
It is very easy these days to have a unified inbox for all your email accounts. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of email clients out there that can let you do this.
So this brings us to the next section of email productivity, that is to get the right email client.
Get the Right Email Client
"The mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools." ~Confucius
A good email client for productivity should do the following:
- A unified inbox for all your emails accounts. In other words, the email client must be able to let you access all your email accounts. If you have 10 email accounts, they should come and go from that same email client.
- It allows you to easily process your emails. Ask yourself these questions when you consider an email client for productivity: Can you just swipe archive your email? How about snoozing it for later? Is there a reminder you can set to follow up on an important email to which you want a reply? Can you schedule your email to send at a certain time so that it could arrive in your receiver's inbox at the right time?
- Syncs everything. A great email client not only syncs email accounts across all devices but also your email signatures (and other settings) too.
- Available on as many operation systems as possible. If you're using Apple, the client should be available on MacBook, iPhone and iPad. Even better if it's also available on Windows and Android. Check whether or not the client is available on all your devices.
- Advanced search function. This allows you to find your emails fast. Searching for old emails is sometimes necessary, so your email client must come with smart search functionalities.
After using 50+ email clients on Mac and my iPhone, my choice have come down to this:
- Spark Email by Readdle
Spark Email by Readdle for Apple Users
These are just my few favorites about the app.
- It syncs everything. Even the email accounts and signatures sync seamlessly on all your devices. Set it up on one of your devices and you’ll get it set up automatically every where.
- “Send Again.” You can choose any email you have sent or those that you have received and send it again. It’s a great time saver. Have you ever loved an email newsletter you received and wanted to use it as a template? This feature is a killer for this!
- A single swipe for two actions (mark as read and archived). If you’re an inbox zero freak like me and hate to see unread emails in your archive folder, you will love this feature. I found most email clients requires two or even more clicks to do this trick.
- Send email later. Have you ever wanted to have your email sent at a later time? This feature will come in handy.
- Follow up reminder. Spark also lets us set a reminder to follow up on your email if you expect a reply.
- It’s FREE! Other apps that give you all these email capabilities (or even fewer) would charge you a few bucks but Spark is completely free.
- A bonus for me is that it integrates with Todoist, my task management app.
Of all the 50+ email apps I've tried, Spark is the best. I really hope that that the Windows version will become available soon so those people on Windows can enjoy all these great features.
Now that you've got the right mindset and tool for your email productivity, the next part is to create email routines that let you take control over your day, work and life.
7 Email Routines for Work Productivity
Your email routines determine how productive you are at work.
Checking email too often will leave you little time for other areas of your work. Not checking your email on a daily basis would make you feel anxious about missing out on tasks that are communicated via email.
Here are 7 email routines you can adopt to take charge of your work:
Process your emails first thing in the morning
That's right. While most productivity experts say you should never check your emails until you finished your most important tasks, I recommend that you check your emails first thing in the morning.
Emails are inbox for work-related tasks. So do it as part of your daily planning and add tasks that come with your email into your daily to do list. It makes sense to plan first thing in the morning.
Limit your email processing to as little time as possible. (I do it in less than 10 minutes.) The goal is to capture all the tasks into your to do list, not to read or reply to emails.
Most email clients come with a task management feature. For me, I integrate Spark with Todoist, so with only a click or two, I can easily capture my email as a task on my to-do app.
If you don't have a task management app or if you don't use any, you should consider creating different folders to process your emails. For example, you should have…
- Inbox folder for all emails
- Archive folder for emails you've completed
- Today folder for tasks to do today
- Tomorrow folder for email task to do the next day
- This Week folder for those to do within the same week
- Next Week folder for next week
- Waiting on for emails you're waiting on someone else to act on
Archive emails after you've completed it. If it's an FYI email, archive it after you’ve read it. If you don't need to read it, archive it immediately. If you need to reply to it, archive it after you have done it.
Get a quick win by achieving inbox zero
Achieving inbox zero is a quick win that is a good way to start the day. Don't underestimate the benefits and power of decluttering your email inbox.
You will already achieve this if you follow the previous routine properly. Move emails from your inbox into the right folder.
Move it to Today folder if you need to act on it today. Tomorrow folder is for those emails you plan to act on tomorrow. Other folders you might want to have include This Week, Next Week, Archive and Waiting On.
Getting to inbox zero at the end of the day is another quick win and a great way to plan for the next day.
This brings us to the next email routine:
Check emails no more than three times a day
Why three times a day?
First in the morning to capture your tasks for your daily planning, second to actually act on them, and the third time to capture your tasks again as part of plan for the next day.
Limit the first and third time to as little time as possible. Again, I do it in less than 10 minutes.
Do the first email check first thing in the morning. The third one should be just before you end your day.
The second time when you act on your email tasks can take up to one hour or even more if you're a email support staff member or in any profession whose work is in the email. But if your email is not the only source of your tasks, I'd recommend limiting it to 30-60 minutes at most.
Calculate the right timing for yourself. For me, 60 minutes a day for email is the maximum amount of time I can give to my email tasks.
Doing so helps you stay on top of your email management. It also relieves the anxiety and fear of missing out on tasks that come with emails.
Schedule time to act on emails
Scheduling doesn't have to be fixed but it has to be in line with your flow of work and energy.
For me, my schedule is either before or right after lunch break, after I've completed all my important daily tasks and routines for my meaningful work and life.
Set a maximum of 30-60 minutes if email is not the only source of your work tasks. Of course, if you're an email support staff member, you'll have to calculate the right timing and time limit that work for you.
If you're an office employee, do the 20% tasks that bring 80% of your work outcome before acting on emails.
Turn off notifications
Still having notifications on for your emails?
When was the last notification you got? Notice reaction when your next incoming email beeps and your notifications pops? How did you feel? How did it affect your body sensations, emotions or even your mind?
Notifications cause you to multitask, which takes a toll on your productivity especially if you're working on a difficult task.
Even if you don't want or try to control your response, notifications are designed to get your attentions. And as it turns out, they're very good at it.
Keeping notifications on increases your chances of checking emails multiple times a day. And trying to control your response could exhaust your mental energy and stress you out.
If you want to be productive even if email is the only source of tasks for your work, you should go ahead and turn off your email notifications.
Don't keep your email software open
Email is not your productivity tool.
When you keep it open, you will increase your chance of opening it and when you're faced with difficult task. After all, it is an easy excuse when you can't think of what to do or go about your difficult, often meaningful, task.
Closing your email client will make it a bit more difficult for you to get distracted.
In fact, I'd even go another step further and recommend you to not just minimize it on Windows, or close it on Mac, but to shut its process completely – to make it more difficult to distract you.
Act on emails only after completing your MITs
Start your day with a quick win by getting to inbox zero and making a daily plan. Then, focus on your most important tasks (MITs). The more time you can spend on your MITs, the better. But don't spend so much time you can't deal with your other tasks and other work events.
Consider committing to one hour on your MITs. Then, try to increase it minute by minute as you get better at it.
Only then should you act on your email, within the time limit you set: 30 minutes, 60 minutes or whatever amount of time you set for email management.
4 Ways to Process Your Emails Effectively
I've mentioned a lot about how to process your emails effectively in the previous section. So if you skip it, I'd recommend you give it a read.
This section is about specifics for effective email processing.
Let's dive right in.
Use 2-minute rule to process your emails
You might have heard a lot about the 2-Minute Rules to beat procrastination and create new habits.
I'd also recommend you use the rule for email processing.
Act on emails that take less than 2 minutes. And plan those that you need more time in your to do list (or move them into the right folder in your email client: archive, today, tomorrow, this week, next week, waiting on, and so on).
The 2-minute rule applies when you process your email in the morning and at the end of the day as I suggested in the previous section on email routines.
I don't recommend you use the 2-minute rule for the time you schedule to act on emails. In fact, for that, you should use the Pomodoro Technique.
Use Pomodoro Technique for your email schedule
The Pomodoro Technique suggests that you work in set intervals of 25 minutes work and take a break for five minutes between each interval and a long break of 15-30 minutes after 4-6 intervals.
The rationale is to pause and give ourselves space to reflect. We often neglect to take a break as we focus on and get in the flow with our important work. So the technique is also a helpful reminder when it comes to taking proper breaks from work.
But how do you apply the Pomo technique for your email schedule?
Set a timer to 30 minutes if you schedule to work on your emails for only 30 minutes a day. Then take a 5-minute break before you move on to your next task.
Set a timer to 25 minutes if you schedule to work on your email for an hour. Then take a 5-minute break and get back to your email task for your second Pomo session. Take another quick break before you move on to your next task.
If you plan more time to act on your email, add more Pomo sessions as necessary.
I personally use BeFocused Pro for the Pomodoro Technique on both my iPhone and MackBook but you can find a lot of Pomodoro apps on your app store.
Or you can just use your phone timer.
In fact, even a kitchen timer works!
Archive your emails
Archive all the emails that you have completed and those that you do not need to act on.
Why? It's the process of decluttering your email inbox and therefore, your mind. If you've never had an inbox zero, try it and see how you feel differently every time you open your email software.
In fact, archiving emails could give you the feeling of a quick wins to jumpstart your day.
There are different ways to archive your emails, depending on the email service provider you use and your email client.
Some email service providers, like Gmail, come with ready-made archive folder. On the web mail of Gmail, you can easily archive your emails by pressing the "e" button on your keyboard.
If you use an email client like Spark, one swipe will do the job.
If your email client does not have this function built in, you can just create an archive folder and make it a habit to move your completed emails there.
I don’t recommend deleting your emails unless you run out of storage. With smart search function available in most email providers these days, you can easily find those email that you got 5 years ago.
Organize emails that need your actions and take more than 2 minutes
To stay on top of your emails, you'll have to organize your emails that you need to act on and take more than two minutes to do.
Use folders. You could have these folder structure:
- Follow up
- Waiting on
Or this if you do daily planning:
- This Week
- Next Week
- Waiting on
I would personally recommend the second folder structure as it brings better clarity in your planning.
Or if you use a good email client, you can easily turn your email into a task and archive it without worrying you'll forget it.
The point is that you should have a system to organize your emails in a way that adapts to your daily planning.
How to Write Better Email
This part of email productivity is about how to write a better email.
Email productivity technique is not complete without taking into account how to write good email.
Let's dive in.
Understand your recipient
The very first element you should consider is your email receivers. Who are they? What's their attitude like towards email? What's their email style?
You might not know much about them personally but different professions tend to adopt different email attitudes. Frontline staff at a bank do not tend to like sophisticated emails. Bloggers might not like long emails but people in management position seem to write longer emails.
Some people like to be communicated via email. Others prefer to talk in person whenever possible.
The more you understand your recipient and their email style, the better chances that you have to write emails that get read.
Know what you want (and how to achieve it)
Why are you emailing? What action do you want your receiver to take? Is it just for their information?
In other words, what is your call to action (CTA)?
Knowing what you want is another step closer to writing an email that gets read and/or acted on. If you want your recipient to click on your link, you know that you must include the link and use an enticing text to invite them to click.
Inviting people to your training course? Maybe a quick email with a link to more information could probably increase the chance of their joining you.
Here are a few great tips from Campaign Monitor to optimize your CTAs in emails:
- Use action verbs. Examples include "read the story," "get the discount," and "try it for free."
- Make a CTA text/button large and clear
- Keep your email short
- Use the first person
- Create urgency. Here are just a few phrases you can use to create urgency in your email: Buy now, today only, RSVP - Only 3 spots left, and shop now.
How can you increase the chance for people to read your FYI email? You might want to begin by inviting them to "read it" Or ask questions like "Can you help me with this?"
My recommendation is to have a clear CTA even it's an FYI email. You might also want to place your different types of CTAs in different parts of your email if it's a long copy email.
Write a compelling subject line
Almost half of email recipients open emails based on the subject line alone. A compelling email subject line should:
- Create fear of missing out. However, a word of caution here - you must be honest here. If you say you're going to cut the registration to your course tonight, do it. If you say, you'll increase the price tomorrow, you must be true to your email subject.
- Create curiosity. There are various ways to do this: asking question, be weird, telling your recipients to not open your email, going against general acceptance on a subject, and so on.
- Be funny. "Is email productivity only for nerds?" could be inviting for a prospect. Make your subject line funny when you can.
- Make them feel proud of themselves. If your email is about an entrepreneurship training course, an email subject line like "You deserve to earn more than this" could be compelling.
- Make easy something difficult. Here are a few examples: Increase your website traffics ten times in two days, learn a language in a month, How to read a book in an hour.
- Address their pain. "Procrastination, no more" "Use these productivity apps to beat procrastination"
- Be straight forward. If you want to share your best email productivity tips, your subject line could just be "Best email productivity tips."
Whatever you use to increase your chance that people will open your emails. Be true to the promise you make.
69% of email recipients report email as spam based solely on subject line.
Keep your email short and concise
I loved writing long emails. I wanted to give my recipients every single detail they need to know in my email. In fact, I treated my email as a sole medium of communication and that every thing should be communicated in writing.
It could be ok if you're a lawyer or other serious professions.
But in most cases than not, keeping your email short and concise increases your chance of achieving your CTA.
If it has to be long, you should consider breaking your email down into different sections and sub-sections. Use large fonts or capital letters for the heading of each section. You might also want to use different font colors if your email recipients read rich text emails, which most do nowadays.
Proofread before sending it
Proofreading is an extra step that you should take especially if you are sending an important email. And it is more than just checking spellings and grammar.
Here are 7 more tips to better proofread your email:
- Check names. People identify themselves with their name. For some, it is a big mistake if you get their name wrong. So the first thing I'd recommend for proofreading is to make sure that you get your email recipients' names right.
- Check your tone. Maybe you were angry a few minutes ago when you started writing and could cause your email to feel harsh. It could be too funny when in fact you want your email recipients to take it seriously. Don't skip this especially if you feel emotional when you were writing your email.
- Double check important information. Date and time, if any, must be correct. Others could be the link you mention, the attachment, and the steps to take for an instruction email.
- Fine tune it. Is your instruction clear? Reread it out loud. Is it easy to understand? And if you want your recipients to act on your email, make your CTA crystal clear: Read more, download this, buy now, or book now.
- Check how compelling your CTA is. Do you use action verb? Is it clear and dominant enough to get attention? If it's urgent, do you state that? Could it create enough curiosity for people to click or ask for more information? Bold the text. Make the button large. Use a different font types and sizes. Ask yourself how you can make your call to action more compelling.
- Check attachment/link. Attachments and links are usually important part of the email people send yet we sometimes forget it. In fact, if you don't proofread emails, you tend to forget your attachment more often than those who do. I make it a habit to attach a file immediately after I have written the line where I ask my email recipients to check out the attachment.
These could sound like a lot but it will be worth it when you send an important email.
Schedule Your Email to Be sent at an Appropriate Time
Now you're ready to send your email! But before you do it, ask yourself this question:
When is the best time to send this email?
The answer to this question depends on several factors such as:
- Who you are sending your email. If you send it to me, do it at 8:00 AM. It's when I process my email for my daily tasks. That will increase your chance of getting my reply in the same day.
- What mood you want of your recipient when they read your email. The best time to get your email read when people feel relaxed could be Sunday. Or you might want to send it at 9:30 AM on Tuesday if you want it to get to office employees when they feel most productive.
- Different time zones. You will want to schedule your email to send at 2:00 PM Cambodia time if you want it to arrive in the inbox of your recipient who is based in Germany.
- Not wanting to send email in the night? Another great reason to schedule your midnight email to be sent the next morning, maybe just before your recipient sat down at their desk.
- The type of email you're sending. Work email, for example, should sent on Friday night or on a weekend, especially one to which you want a reply. With smart phones these day, it's highly likely that people will see your email immediately but as they're supposed to be taking a break, they will likely choose to not act on it and wait till Monday. But as more emails fill up their inbox over the weekend and they don't have a good way to organize their emails and tasks, they could forget your email. In contrast, a sales email could probably be best to go out on a weekend when we tend to spend money shopping
So, next time, before you hit the send button, ask yourself, Is it the right time to send it? If not, schedule it to send at the right time.
That's it for this Essential Guide to Email Productivity!
Now over to you
I’d like to hear from you:
- Which tips from this guide do you want to try out first?
- What other tips did I miss?
Let me know by leaving a comment.