22 Email Tips That Will Skyrocket Your Productivity
Email is a productivity nightmare. Studies show that we spend up to 28% of our workdays reading and responding to emails. We check our inboxes every five minutes or 74 times per day, on average. 70% of the time, we respond to alerts within a mere 6 seconds.
As I’ve explained in great detail in our latest article, every time we compulsively check our inbox, we get an instant burst of negativity and stress, lose any flow and focus we’ve had, elicit switching costs, and waste our time on other people’s agendas.
If you’re serious about getting big things done, you need to put an end to this. Here are 22 tips that will turn you from an email slave to an email and productivity superstar.
Before we begin, know this: The more you check email, the more stressed and anxious you become. The less you check, the more relaxed you feel and the less you worry about missing stuff. Knowing this makes many of the recommendations below less scary.
Part 1: Crafting a Healthy Email Routine
The average person’s email routine is dominated by pervasive notifications and constant inbox checking. Knowing what we know about the cost of interruptions and task switching, this is clearly detrimental to productivity.
Here are my best tips for creating a more productive email routine.
1. Disable Notifications
Are you one of the idiots (pardon my language) who responds to alerts within six seconds? Go into your settings and turn off notifications. The truth is, even without them, we check our inbox often enough. In fact, one study showed that we self-interrupt ourselves with email every five minutes.
Understand that every interruption elicits switching costs that quickly add up to steal 40% or more of your productivity. Worse yet, every interruption can lead to hours and hours of procrastination. Once you’re in your inbox, you might as well have a look at your Facebook feed, followed by Instagram, and, oh there’s a cool video, and whoopsie – you’ve just wasted an hour of your time.
Productivity is largely a game of focus, and in today’s attention economy, you need to protect your focus with any means necessary. Disabling notifications is the bare minimum you must do.
2. Know Your VIPs (and Enable Notifications for Them)
Not all emails are equally important. A message from your boss is different than a message from your spouse is different than a message from someone you don’t know.
There are VIPs in your world that deserve special attention. You probably want to respond to your kids, spouse, important clients, or boss faster than to everyone else. It makes sense to set up notifications for these people. You can do this in every email client – all it takes is a quick Google search.
3. Don’t Check Email When You Wake Up During the Night
You may think it’s no big deal to have a quick glance at your email inbox when you wake up during the night – but you’d be wrong. Checking email in the middle of the night is harmful for two reasons. First, looking at your screen allows blue light to enter your retina, which has been shown to suppress melatonin (your major sleep hormone), which worsens sleep quality and screws with your circadian rhythm.
Second, if you find a scary email in your inbox – a warning, “we need to talk” message, or something like that – you might get so freaked out that it becomes hard to fall asleep again. Granted, this happens rarely but if it does, it can mess up an entire night’s sleep, leading to unnecessary stress, fatigue, and bad mood.
Besides, what’s the benefit of checking email in the middle of the night? It’s an addictive pattern, that’s all.
4. Don’t Check First Thing in the Morning
According to a recent survey, 46% of Americans check their smartphones before they even get out of bed in the morning. If you spend 1-2 minutes doing this, nine out of ten times it’s no big deal. It’s really only a big deal when you come across that scary email I mentioned earlier. If you get a message that makes you anxious, overwhelms you, or creates uncertainty, stress, or negativity in any way, then you’re off to a bad start.
You’re literally priming yourself to be miserable and less optimistic. According to positive psychology researcher Michelle Gielan, one negative email can lead you to report having a bad day hours later.
5. Get Real Work Done Before Dipping into Email
Deep work before shallow work. Creative work before reactive work. A couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of checking email right before my first deep work block. One of the emails I found was so disturbing it completely ripped my focus and motivation. I was so stressed out that I couldn’t get myself to do any meaningful work all morning long.
The first two hours of work in a day are usually the best. It’s when we’re full of energy, motivated, and equipped with full willpower and concentration tanks. You can get more done in those two hours than in 3-4 hours at the end of your workday. Why take the risk of blowing them by compulsively checking email beforehand?
Better to start your day with your morning ritual and a deep work block. Only once those high-value time blocks are over should you dip into your inbox.
6. Check Email No More Than 2x a Day
Most of us check email all day long. According to one study, office workers glance at their inbox a whopping 74 times per day. And even without notifications, we do it every five minutes, according to one study.
As I explain in other articles, the costs of constant interruptions are huge. They create non-stop states of high-alertness and stress, elicit switching costs, lead to wasting time, derail focus, and kill any chances of getting into flow. Let me make it clear: The more often you check email, the less productive and more stressed you are. It’s a direct, causal relationship.
Therefore, the #1 email productivity tip is to reduce checking email to 2-3x a day. Decide on pre-determined blocks and stick with them. Give yourself one hour at 11am and another hour at 4pm. If you need more time, by all means go for it – but do it in a long stretch, not intermittently throughout the day.
A recent study illustrates the merits of this approach. The researchers divided 124 adults into two groups. For the first week, Group 1 was allowed to check email as often as they could while Group 2 was told to check email only three times a day. For the second week, the groups switched. The results showed that when participants checked only three time a day they reported less stress, which predicted better overall well-being on a range of physical and psychological dimensions.
7. Set Expectations
If you’re worried people will complain because you don’t respond to emails immediately, set up an automated response, saying something like:
“Thanks for your email. Due to my current workload, I only check email twice a day – at 11am and 4pm. Thanks for your understanding and have a great day!”
“Hey there, just letting you know that I’ve received your email. In an attempt to be less distracted, more mindful, and more deliberate about using my time, I’ve decided to only check email at 11am and 4pm. If this is urgent, please call me office.”
Alternatively, just tell your VIPs about your new email habits. Ask your boss how swiftly you need to respond to their emails – within 10 minutes? An hour? 24 Hours? Outside of work?
Make sure you stick to your schedule religiously. You can’t tell people you only check at 11am but then respond to their email immediately when you get it at 10am.
8. Avoid Leaving Your Email Open in the Background
This tip comes straight from Jocelyn Glei’s book Unsubscribe: "Avoid leaving your email open in the background. Research has shown that just having your email program open in the background of your computer screen as you focus on another task, even if the window is minimized, can decrease performance. Even if your email isn’t front and center, your brain still knows it’s there in the background and devotes a certain amount of energy to monitoring it, which takes away from your ability to truly execute the task at hand.”
Anything you can do to make email less readily available and less in-your-face will be helpful. This means closing your email client, closing the Gmail tab in your browser, disabling notifications, maybe even deleting email apps on your phone or tablet
Part 2: Processing Your Inbox
If you follow the advice above, you’ll have two to three dedicated time blocks in your day for processing your inbox. Here’s how to handle your inbox in the most effective way.
9. Use Folders
Your email inbox is a temporary holding place for incoming emails. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s not meant to store all of your emails indefinitely. When you process your inbox, you want to go through emails and move them to more appropriate places. In other words, you want to move them from “inbox” to folders.
The type of folders you use is totally up to you. I personally only use two:
- @ACTION – the temporary holding place for all emails I need to respond to.
- DONE – the storage place for all of my emails, my archive, if you will.
This works for me because it goes well with my email workflow (see below). Depending on your preferences, you might need a much more sophisticated system.
10. Don’t Delete
In today’s day and age, there’s really no need to delete emails. Archiving is the far superior alternative. Having all of your emails in an archive is useful for many reasons. For one thing, it helps you find important documents, which are often attached to emails, more easily. It also helps you remember promises made, both your own and those of others. You can just search your inbox and find what you’re looking for. You never know when you might need something.
11. Have a Workflow
Let’s say it’s 11am and time for email. How do you go about doing this? I suggest using a methodical approach, like the one I use. First, I go through my inbox and process it using a set of if-then algorithms that dictate how I handle the various types of emails I receive. Second, once my inbox is empty, I respond to emails – starting with the most important ones (duh!).
Here are the algorithms I use when processing my inbox:
1) When an email doesn’t require a response and no action is associated with it --> then I archive it.
2) When an email requires a response or an action that takes less than two minutes --> then I do it immediately and archive afterwards.
3) When an email requires a longer response --> then I put it into the @ACTION folder.
4) When an email requires another action --> then I write the other action on a to-do list and archive the email.
5) When I send out an email with the hope of getting a response, then I add it to my “Waiting For” list, which I check regularly so that I can followup if necessary.
Dead simple. When it’s time for email I go through my inbox and follow my little algorithms. Once the inbox is empty, I head over to the @ACTION folder and start responding to emails. Obviously, I prioritize the emails in my @ACTION folder and respond to the most important ones first. This keeps my inbox clean, orderly, and relatively stress-free.
12. If You Touch it, Take Action
I learned this rule from Chet Holmes and his book The Ultimate Sales Machine. He writes: “Tell me if this sounds familiar. You come into your office, and there on your desk sit three folders and two letters that you must respond to. You look at the first letter and read a few sentences. Dealing with it is clearly going to take more time than you have right now. You put it aside. In one of your folders is another task. You handle that task and your phone rings. You answer the phone and get pulled in a new direction for 10 to 15 minutes. Then you go back to the folder, but, just as you do, an email comes in. You stop to read the email, which contains a task that must be dealt with but requires more time than you have right now.”
“If you spend just 15 minutes per day to revisit, readdress, or reread documents or emails, you will waste 97 hours per year where no action is taken.”
When you can’t deal with an email right then and there, don’t open it. What good is it to check an email when you’re right smack in the middle of writing an article? You can’t do anything with that email – all you’re doing is wasting time.
I used to open certain emails five to ten times before taking the appropriate action on them. Sometimes I didn’t have enough time. Mostly, though, I was just too lazy or not motivated enough to handle it. Nowadays, when I open an email, I take action. I either respond immediately, forward it to the right person, or write the necessary next actions on a to-do list. I don’t open emails as a way to distract myself or satisfy my curios instincts. If you touch an email, take action.
13. Use the 2-Minute Rule
The 2-minute rule was invented by productivity guru David Allen and states: If a task takes less than two minutes, do it immediately.
This goes hand in hand with the previous tip. When you open an email that takes less than two minutes to respond to, do it immediately. Don’t let these emails pile up. Don’t touch them over and over again. Have the discipline to dispatch easy emails quickly. This will generate momentum, get you in a productive groove, and helps you keep your inbox clean.
14. Decide if Email is the Right Medium
As discussed in this article, email is a problematic communication tool because it lacks social cues and comes with the following negativity bias: positively intended emails are interpreted as neutral; neutrally intended emails are interpreted as negative.
That means email is a terrible medium for delicate conversations, debating heated issues, or criticizing someone’s behavior. Email is also the wrong medium for brainstorming ideas, decision-making, complex planning, and so forth. Instead of having endless back-and-forth threads, make a practice of taking the initiative to move such conversations offline.
15. Decrease Urgency With Short Expectation-Setting Emails
Sometimes you don’t have the time or necessary information to respond to urgent emails quickly. This can be inconvenient for both you and the person waiting for the response. You may feel guilty for letting them wait; they may get more and more anxious the longer they have to wait.
In that case, send a quick expectation-setting email that provides context and lets the other person know you’ve received their email. Here are two examples:
“Hey Peter – just letting you know I’ve seen your email. I need to talk to my boss about a few of your ideas to make sure we’re on the same page. I’ll get back to you at around 4pm.”
“Hey Susan – thanks for getting in touch. I’ll be busy with an important work project all week, which means I can’t give your proposal the attention it needs. I’ll get right to it next Monday and will contact you Monday afternoon. Thanks for your patience.”
People love these emails. It helps them understand what’s going on so they don’t have to conjure up weird fantasies – Maybe she’s angry with me… Maybe my proposal is shit… Did I say something wrong?...
Part 3: Writing Better Emails, Becoming Hard to Reach, Saying No Without Feeling Guilty, and Even More Badass Email Tips
Once you’ve taken care of the basics, it’s time to raise your email game to ninja level by using the following badass strategies.
16. Make Your Emails Do More Work
Compare the following emails and consider which ones reduce the amount of email you’ll receive and the amount of mental clutter they’ll generate.
Let’s say you met an old friend and want to grab dinner with him.
Version 1: “Hey Mike, it was great meeting you last weekend. I had a blast. Want to grab dinner some time?”
Version 2: “Hey Mike, it was great meeting you last weekend. I had a blast. Want to grab dinner some time? How about next Tuesday 7/8 or Thursday 7/10? We could go to Mamma Mia’s Pizza.”
Or let’s say you want to arrange a coffee meeting with someone you admire.
Version 1: “Hi Melanie, I’ve been a fan of your work for years, and I’d love to pick your brain. What do you say?”
Version 2: “Hi Melanie, my name is Nils and I’ve been a fan of your work for years. I’ll be in Chicago next week and was wondering – can I take you to coffee? How does next Tuesday 7/8, or Wednesday 7/9 work? I’m free all day, especially in the afternoon, and I can meet wherever is convenient for you.”
It’s obvious that the second versions will reduce the amount of back and forth emails, which can reduce your inbox load and the amount of open loops swirling around in your head dramatically. Yes, it forces you to do some thinking, but it’s thinking that will need to get done anyway.
17. Don’t Reply
Productivity expert Cal Newport recounts an interesting tidbit in his book Deep Work: “As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond.”
“Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If you didn’t make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by the professor to respond, you didn’t get a response.”
Newport recommends not replying to an email if any of the following applies:
- It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
- It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
- Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.
There are many exceptions to this approach, but not replying can reduce the amount of email you receive and the amount of time you spend in your inbox quite dramatically. And yes, some people will get upset and “bad” things will happen. In that case, keep Tim Ferris’ advice in mind: “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.”
18. Use Templates
If you find yourself writing the same email over and over again, take the time to create a well-written template for it.
I used to own a popular nutrition and health blog a while back. One question I received a couple of times per week was about shift work and how to make it as healthy as possible. Instead of explaining my thinking on the topic anew each time, I created an in-depth template explaining things in detail. Every time I got another email on the topic, I’d just use the template. This saved me a ton of time and ensured that people got the best possible advice.
19. Say No Without Feeling Guilty
In her book, Unsubscribe, Jocelyn Glei gives an interesting tip for feeling less guilty when declining requests: "In a now-classic MetaFilter post, Andrea Donderi theorizes that everyone is raised as either an asker or a guesser.11 In an ask culture you are taught that asking for whatever you need is fine, with the understanding that the person you’re asking can always decline. In a guess culture you are taught that you should only ask for something if you think you are very likely to get a yes. In other words, you are trained to be attentive to subtle details and signs that will help you assess the likelihood that someone will be receptive to your proposal.”
“The problem emerges when askers confront guessers. Askers are inclined to just ‘put it out there’ no matter what and leave the decision up to you: Can I crash in your studio apartment for a week? Will you code my website for free? Could you donate money to my new business venture? You get the idea.”
“Askers don’t mind if you say no because they were just testing the waters. But guessers have trouble believing that. They naturally assume that askers share their mindset, so they don’t think someone would ask for something if they didn’t expect to get a yes. Thus, when askers collide with guessers, their requests can often come off as brazen or presumptuous."
This happens so often it’s almost funny. A guesser receives a request from an asker and thinks: How can they expect me to agree to this?... They should know I’m busy… What am I going to do now?...
This decision-making process costs nerves and time. Plus, it almost inevitably results in accepting things you probably don’t want or should be doing. The distinction between askers and guessers makes it easier to say no, saving you time and energy. If you’re a guesser, remember that the other person probably doesn’t expect you to accept the request. Simply decline in a polite manner and move on without feeling guilty.
20. Unsubscribe From Newsletters
You’re probably subscribed to some amazing newsletters that send you amazing emails, very much like our NJlifehacks newsletter. However, you’re likely also subscribed to a bunch of lame newsletters that clog up your inbox without providing any value. To reduce email overload, use a tool like unroll.me to bulk unsubscribe from unwanted newsletters.
21. Become Hard to Reach
Marketing guru Dan Kennedy once said, “You’ve got to free yourself from the tyranny of the phone, text messages, email, faxes, and similar stuff. If you refuse to limit and control access to you, the war is lost even if you win a few battles here or there.”
Becoming hard to reach is all about limiting and controlling access to you. The less email you get, the more time you can spend on higher value activities.
Cal Newport, whom we met earlier, offers a great example. When you visit his author page, you won’t find a general-purpose email address. Instead, you’ll find a list of different individuals to contact for specific purposes: a literary agent for rights requests or a speaking agent for speaking requests. If you want to reach Newport himself, you get a special-purpose email address that comes with the following conditions: “If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, email me at interesting[at]calnewport.com. For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.”
You could do something similar using an automated response (see tip #7). If you let people know about the reasons for limiting your email time, they’ll be more understand than you may realize. After all, they probably struggle with email overload just as much as you do.
22. (Re-)Connect With Your Ambitions
Jocelyn Glei puts it well in Unsubscribe: “If you want to say no to email, you must say yes to something else. What projects do you want to move forward? What are you trying to accomplish?
Let’s face it. For the most part, email is a waste of time. Sure, it’s necessary to some degree, and we can’t eliminate it completely. But the amount of time we spend on it is not proportional to the value it provides.
One reason we spend so much time on email is because we don’t have an exciting enough future we’re working for. If you have a big and important enough goal you’re approaching, you automatically reduce time wasted on email. Why? Because you actually want to reach your goals – and you know well enough that email isn’t going to help you with that. So, set some goals. Come up with a vision for your future. Find something exciting to work toward.