There’s been a lot of great discussions about email productivity going around on sites I enjoy, so I thought I’d throw in five no-brainers that I’ve seen help a lot of folks.
Shut off auto-check – Either turn off automatic checking completely, or set it to something reasonable, like every 20 minutes or so. If you’re doing anything with new email more than every few minutes, you might want to rethink your approach. I’m sure that some of you working in North Korean missile silos need real-time email updates, but I encourage the rest of you to consider ganging your email activity into focused (maybe even timed) activity every hour or three. Process, tag, respond to the urgent ones, then get the hell back to work. (See also, NYT: You There, at the Computer: Pay Attention)
Pick off easy ones – If you can retire an email with a 1-2 line response (< 2 minutes; pref. 30 seconds), do it now. Remember: this is about action, not about cogitating and filing. Get it off your plate, and get back to work. On the other hand, don’t permit yourself to get caught up in composing an unnecessary 45-minute epistle (see next item).
Write less – Stop imagining that all your emails need to be epic literature; get better at just keeping the conversation moving by responding quickly and with short actions in the reply. Ask for more information, pose a question, or just say “I don’t know.” Stop trying to be Victor Hugo Marcel Proust, and just smack it over the net—especially if fear of writing a long reply is what slows your response time. N.B.: This does not mean that you should write elliptically or bypass standard grammar, capitalization, and punctuation (unless you want to look 12 years old); just that your well-written message can and should be as concise as possible. That saves everyone time.
Cheat – Use something like MailTemplate to help manage answers to frequent email subjects. Templates let you create and use boilerplate responses to the questions and requests to which you usually find yourself drafting identical replies over and over from scratch. At least use a template as a basis for your response, and then customize it for that person or situation. Don’t worry—you can still let your sparkling prose and winning wit shine through, just without having to invent the wheel 10 times each day.
Be honest – If you know in your heart that you’re never going to respond to an email, get it out of sight, archive it, or just delete it. Guilt will not make you more responsive two months from now, otherwise, you’d just do it now, right? Trust your instincts, listen to them, and stop trying to be perfect.
Update 2005-10-18 07:33:45
Yep, you read it right: in the eightish months since I posted this, I’ve set my email to check every hour. The result? I ain’t missing much. A lot of stuff that can wait, a lot that resolves itself, and a huge mass of items that previously would have sent me on a 50-yard-dash to nothing.
Friends: stop letting your email poke you with a stick. It’s just not worth it.