Smart Email Tools

Be Productive – Use Smart Email Tools

The Email Problem

When I ask people in business what stops them being productive they mostly say, “Dealing with all my EMAIL!”  It’s reassuring to know that Email is a shared problem but how can businesses get on top of it?

In a previous article we looked at ways to “Take Control of Your Inbox” by: 1) choosing when to check Email and 2) using a process to sort messages quickly.

But why stop there? Let’s look at some of smart Email tools available in Microsoft Outlook that can help businesses work smarter. This article takes a look at Rules, Colour Coding and Quick Parts.

We also look at smarter Email structure and practices that can reduce the time employees spend processing Email. There is no magic solution but with some effort and imagination teams can use these ideas to collectively come up with ways to use their time more productively.

Smart Email Tools

1. Use Rules for Decision Making and Filing

Use the Rules functionality to automatically process Emails. If you set the conditions that an Email meets, a certain action is taken. That may sound complex but with a little practice and testing, you can master rules. Most rules either: 1) organise messages or 2) notify you of their arrival. An sample rule is “to move messages from a Newsletter subscription into a Newsletter folder”.

These Emails don’t require immediate action but their arrival can often interrupt our focus on priority tasks. By using a rule you ignore them until you chose to read them. The rule helps you take control and use your time productively. Schedule this low priority task into a short gap in your calendar or when your energy levels are low.

Create rules to suit how you work. Here are some ideas:

  • Identify Emails from your most important clients and send them to the top of your Inbox.
  • Move all meeting invitations to a “Meeting Invites” folder for easy retrieval
  • Email from certain people stays in your Inbox while all other mail is moved to specified folders (this rule is not for the faint hearted, but a version of it could work for you)

Top Tip: Don’t forget about Emails that have been filed automatically. Check regularly.

2. Use Colour Coding to Prioritise

Categorise Emails using colour coding to help visually sort and prioritise them. This ensures that important Emails stand out and don’t get overlooked. Assign a  colour based on The Sender or text in the Subject line. Also colour code based on the location of your name i.e. in the To, Cc or Bcc field.

Top Tip: Don’t overuse this tool or your Inbox can look like a rainbow!

3. Use Quick Parts to Save Time

Quick Parts in Microsoft Outlook is a simple tool that allows you reuse a standard block of text, This could text that is used repeatedly such as a project scope statement, a product description or a Company Mission statement.

Save the text from within an existing Email. To retrieve the saved text in a new Email simply type the first few words of the block and press enter to accept the suggested text.

Smart Email tools

A lot of time is lost reading through Emails to decide how to respond. If you make changes that effect a team of people it is important to get together and brainstorm the best approach. By using these smart Email tools to work smarter together your outcomes and results are more beneficial to the business.

1. Email Structure – Clarify Actions

Rounds of clarification Emails can be avoided by clarifying what you want your readers to do. By using the simple checklist of what, why, who and when you can structure longer complex messages in a way that removes any uncertainty.

Top Tip: Avoid offending colleagues by using language that is too instructional. Involve them in agreeing the new Email structure.

2. Email Structure – Use Purposeful Subjects

If a message is very short you can actually type it in the Subject line itself! This saves a couple of extra clicks to open and close the message. As above, I recommend discussing this in advance with your colleagues so they don’t find your new approach annoying!

Here are some examples where the Subject line can be used for a short message:

  • Action: Review attached report by Friday
  • Project Y: Meeting 1pm tomorrow, Board Room
  • FYI on Project X: No Response Req.

Some people also use acronyms like NRR “no reply required” to make expectations really clear. Try to come up with acronyms related to your own business to save Email processing time.

Other things to consider

Generally the more Emails we send the more we receive. To reduce your Email volumes consider other options. While Email is invaluable for sharing facts, reports or group updates, sometimes a phone call or a desk visit is a better option, particularly if you need to exchange opinions, feelings or thoughts.

Some companies have gone as far as introducing Email free times to give their employees uninterrupted time slots for deep concentrated work. Can you and your team come up with some ideas to collectively reduce Email processing time.

Be Productive

I hope you find a way of applying these ideas within your business. It is never easy to adopt new ways but try to persist until the changes stick. Let us know what work and what doesn’t. And of course please share any of your own tips in the comments below.

For more information or details about our Email Management workshops please contact me at moiradunne@beproductive.ie

Take Control of Your Inbox

Be Productive – Take Control of Your Inbox

The Email Problem

It happens to us all. We arrive in the office and make a plan for the day. But first we check our email and the next thing we know its lunchtime. Sound familiar? Our intentions are good, “I’ll just clear some emails so I can really focus on my plan for the day”. But of course those messages keep arriving because most emails we send prompt a response.

Our email work may have cleared key items off our task list but it may not. That is the first problem – working on email this way is reactive rather than planned. We can become slaves to our email accounts and often end up working on other people’s priorities instead of our own.

The second problem is that unless we actively manage our emails they accumulate so that we end up with thousands in our Inbox. Important information can get lost and the constant arrival of new messages can result in missed deadlines or actions contained in previous messages.

New Approach to Email

So how can we develop some good email habits, take control and reduce some of that email management stress? The first step is to change the way we view our Inbox.

Reading email without making decisions is not a productive use of time. Email management requires a workflow and a process.  The Inbox should be viewed as a conveyer belt.  As new emails arrive aim to read them quickly so that a decision can be made on what action needs to be taken.

3 Steps to Take Control of Your Inbox

Then follow these three steps:

  1. Organise your Inbox
  2. Use a Process to Manage your Email
  3. Control When You Work on Email
  1. Organise Your Inbox

It is important to get organised before you adopt a new approach. Set up folders so you have a place to move your messages as you make decisions.  You can create Reference Folders for messages you wish to keep and Working folders for messages that require further action or follow up.

The Working Folders can include folders like Scheduled, Delegated or Awaiting Information. The Reference folders should reflect the way you work (i.e. key projects or customers). But don’t over complicate this, many people just work with one Reference or Archive folder and avail of the powerful Search and Sort functionality in Microsoft Outlook to find their messages.

  1. Use a Process to Manage your Email

Actively manage your emails as you read each one and decide what action is required. Then move each message to the correct folder. The process is Read, Decide and Move.

Read and Decide

Read the email quickly to decide whether it requires further action or not.

Move

Then move the email as follows:

  1. No Further Action required – Delete it or File it

2) Further Action required – Do It, Task It or Pass It On

  1. Do It – If a response will takes 2 minutes or less
  2. Convert to a Task – If more than 2 minutes is estimated, schedule a task in your calendar or task list to complete at a later time
  3. Pass it On – Forward messages to others if the request is something you are unable to do or it is something you can delegate. Include your reasons for passing the message on.

Guidelines for Processing Email

  • Aim to process each email once only
  • Work through your messages systematically in the order they arrive
  • Don’t cherry pick the interesting ones as other important messages may get overlooked

 Control When You Work on Email

To do this you need to switch off your email notifications.  This can enhance productivity because every switch away from what you are working on to check an email interrupts focus. And it can take up to four minutes to regain that focus.  So if you eliminate even 15 email interruptions a day, you can gain an hour of focussed time. If you do this for a week, you can gain five extra hours.

That sounds fantastic but it can be hard to work without ongoing email alerts or checks. We can feel uncomfortable because we are used to being in touch. In fact our work environment and culture may demand it. But use your judgement. Are there routine days when you could try this new approach even for specific blocks of time?

3 times a day works well for lots of people. Spend 15 minutes maximum checking first thing in the morning. Then schedule time to process your email before lunch and again towards the end of the day.  If that doesn’t seem frequent enough, add in a short timed mid-morning and mid-afternoon check.

Measurement

When you introduce a change to your work practice it is important to measure any improvement. So before you start, track how much time you spend managing your email. Then try your new approach for 30 days and measure your email management time again. Try also to note improved productivity due to the reduced distraction from email.

 Don’t Stop There

Once you have reduced your email management time you can further increase your productivity by using email tools and techniques available in Microsoft Outlook such as:

  1. Rules to Reduce Decisions and Filing
  2. Colour Coding and Flags to Prioritise
  3. Auto text and Templates to automate routine text entry
  4. Purposeful Actions and Subject lines

Here is the link to our article about these topics – Smart Email Tools

Be Productive

These tips may not suit everyone’s style or every work place. But be productive, take the ideas and modify them to suit your own environment. Let me know how it goes and of course I would love to hear any other techniques and tips that have worked for you.

EXAM STUDY TIPS

Be Productive – 8 Exam Study Tips

Exam Study Tips

The Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate exams are nearly here. The exam students will soon finish school and start studying on their own. This is a really important time that has a big impact on how well the exams  will go in June. But it can be hard to stay focused and keep concentrating day after day. Successful students have good study habits. Here are 8 top exam study tips on how to be productive while studying.

  1. Declutter Your Study Space

Your study space should be quiet, bright and comfortable. It should make you feel happy and inspired. Decide the best space in your house that will work for you. Then clear out as much clutter as possible. Decorate your space with a few of your favourite pictures or objects. Make sure that your chair and desk are comfortable and at the correct height as you will be spending a lot of time here.

  1. Get Organised Before You Start

Gather up all the stationery you are going to need over the coming weeks. Avoid wasting time popping into the shops during your study periods. Treat yourself to some new pens, notebooks, cue cards, Post-It pads and highlighter pens. Chose a variety of bright colours to liven up your study space. These colours will also be useful for categorising and grouping topics while you study.

  1. Make a Study Plan You Can Stick To

It is so important to make a plan before you start any studying. Work out how many days you have before the exams start. Plan which subjects you will study on each day. Vary things up so you don’t get fed up of one subject. Break down big topics into smaller chunks so you feel you are getting something completed in one study session.

Be realistic about how much you can do in the time you have. If there is too much, you may need to focus on the most important topics first. List everything and mark each with a priority – high, medium or low.

  1. Start Early in The Day

You have your preparation done, so now you are ready to start a regular study routine. Generally it works best to start studying early in the day. Your energy will be high and it is easier to concentrate. If it helps, get some exercise beforehand but don’t spend too long in case you become side-tracked.

Some people prefer to study later in the day and into the evening. This is fine but remember it can really affect your quality of sleep, which will have a knock on effect for the days to come.

  1. Put Distractions in Another Room

My 15 year old daughter told me to include this one! She said that if her phone is beside her, even on silent, she will be tempted to check it. So remove ANYTHING that will distract you. That may include technology and people! Music may help you study but be honest with yourself and only listen if it improves your concentration.

  1. Make Notes and Test Yourself

Be active when you are studying. This means instead of just reading you are keeping your brain focussed by doing things such as:

  • Highlighting key passages
  • Making notes to summarise key points
  • Making signs for your wall with key terminology or phrases
  • Drawing a graphic for a Maths equation
  • Creating quick reference notes on cue cards for the night before the exam
  • Jotting down questions to test yourself at the end of a session or to recap next day

Can you think of some other ideas that will suit the way you work?

  1. Eat Power Foods and Drink Water

Be smart about what you eat and drink during this study period. It may be tempting to eat comfort food and reward yourself with sugary or fatty snacks. But your focus and concentration is really affected by what you eat. You will also sleep better if you eat a healthy diet. Drink lots of water too during this time.

Try some of these  healthy snack ideas:

  • Blueberries, Dark Chocolate, Popcorn, Hummus, Avocado
  • Peanut Power Balls, Granola Snack Bars

Save your favourite treats for your time off after studying.

  1. Take Time Off and Sleep Well

Aim to study at the same time every day and then take breaks at the same time too. Plan your favourite activities with friends and family so you can completely switch off. This will help you wind down and sleep better. Get some exercise too.

Your Own Ideas

These tips will help you be productive with your study time. You might already have things that help you. Find what works for you and stick to it.

Remember, you only have to work hard for a few more weeks. So why not really go for it? And before you know it, the exams will be over and you will have the whole summer to enjoy. Best of luck!

If you want a Be Productive Infographic of these  8 Study tips click below:

Be Productive – 8 Study Tips Infographic

If you find this useful please share it with your friends.

Follow us for more tips on Instagram (@beproductive.ie), Facebook (beproductive.ie), Twitter (@beproductive_ie) & Web (beproductive.ie)

How Can You Measure Productivity

Productivity – How Can We Measure It?

Productivity is a hot topic these days. At  beproductive.ie we deal with lots of people and companies all striving to be more productive.  At a personal level most people discuss their productivity in terms of getting more done in the time available.  Keeping up with things. But let’s dive in a bit deeper and examine what productivity really means and how it can be measured.

Definition of PRODUCTIVITY

Collins dictionary defines Productivity as “the rate at which goods are produced”.  This definition is quite narrow and is expanded in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to “the rate at which goods are produced or work is completed”

When I chat to clients about what productivity means to them in today’s ever changing world of work their responses include:

  • Do more in less time
  • Do my most important work, with the least amount of effort, so I can spend more time doing what I love.
  • Achieve my goals and spend more time with my family
  • Make money while helping others, working with people I like, and not working overtime

So ask yourself the same question: what does productivity mean to you? What is a productive return on your time? What constitutes valuable work done?

inputs vs outputs

At the simplest level, productivity is a measure of Inputs vs Outputs. For example, in a small company that manufactures products, it can be easy to measure how many people are required to produce a certain number of products. We don’t all manufacture products but even at a personal level we all have “Inputs” and we all have “Outputs”. The challenge is to define what the Inputs and Outputs are in your role. Then you need a practical way of measuring them.

Email Example

One of the simplest things to measure is your Emails. Every day you receive a certain number of new emails (Inputs) and then you process a certain number of those Emails (Outputs). Of course by process I mean actively managing those messages not simply reading them. To be productive each message needs to be processed so that a decision is made and the email does not need to be reprocessed.  There are generally 5 things you should do with your emails:

  • Delete, File, Do, Delegate, Schedule a Task

If you want to learn more about this process click here to read our previous article on the topic on beproductive.ie

Measuring Productivity

The rate at which you clear your Inbox every day can be a simple measure of one aspect of your productivity. Some other measures could include the number of:

  • Customer calls answered
  • Tweets sent
  • Application forms processed
  • Reports written
  • Problems solved
  • Invoices sent

Can you think of other tasks you can clearly measure?

Work Place Productivity

When measuring productivity within a business, volume measures are seldom sufficient on their own. Output measures must also take into account the quality of the output, its timeliness, its cost and also how many people were involved in the production. The effectiveness of the outputs is what matters, rather than the efficiency with which they were produced.

The choice of productivity measures must also be related to the purpose and objectives of the department and organisation as well as the needs of customers.

Your Productivity

So start thinking about what being productive means to you, your team or your business. What do you produce? What outputs are important?

I will be delving into this topic further in coming articles; looking at productivity measurement for different types of roles in different businesses. So keep checking our website beproductive.ie and Twitter feed @beproductive_ie over the coming weeks. In the meantime please share this article and add your own thoughts in the Comments below.

Productivity Experiment

Update on Productivity Experiment – No Coffee for 6 Weeks!

I stopped drinking coffee 15 days ago. The main reason was to honour the Lenten tradition of giving things up. But I was also intrigued to see how caffeine and its absence affected my productivity. Here is my Productivity Experiment Update.

And I am happy to report that I have been pleasantly surprised by this productivity experiment. It has been hard to go without coffee but not nearly as hard as I expected. Particularly as I hadn’t tapered off beforehand, which all the experts recommend.

4 Weeks Still to Go

There is still a way to go but I am hopeful that the worst is behind me. Already I am less inclined to think I need a coffee first thing to “get me going”. But I did lapse one morning, 7 days in. I was running an important seminar and defaulted to old habits. But happily I got back on the horse, or the wagon, I’m not sure which and haven’t faltered since.

What I’ve Learned

  • Drinking lots of water accelerates the caffeine detoxification.
  • It seems to be easier psychologically to give something up if it’s part of a bigger plan rather than trying something for a day or two.
  • Being busy really keeps your mind off it and helps you break the habit
  • Enjoying what you do means you are motivated anyway and don’t rely as much on external factors such as coffee to provide a productivity boost.
  • Energy levels are higher in the afternoon. Presumably this is because there is no lull as the morning coffee leaves your system.
  • Tea is a reasonable alternative but will never provide me with the same happy caffeine boost

What’s Next?

Well it’s only 2 days until St Patrick’s Day, when I can claim a reprieve, yay! My previous lapse tells me that I should be able to enjoy a coffee with my green cupcakes without setting the experiment back too much.

Happy St Patrick’s Day

I hope you all have a great and green St Patrick’s Day wherever you are and if you gave anything up for Lent I hereby grant you a 1 day reprieve!

There is lots of research telling us that happy employees are productive but let’s flip that around – lets talk about how being productive helps you be happy.  

Being Productive Helps you Be Happy

There is lots of research telling us that happy employees are productive but let’s flip that around – lets talk about how being productive helps you be happy.  You know that feeling when you have a really productive day in work, when you make a plan and you actually achieve most of the tasks in the plan? It’s a great feeling.

In work a lot of our frustration and stress comes from the fact that other things stop us being productive. So let’s explore how we can minimise those factors and increase our output and productivity.

Take control

We can’t control time but we can control how we use our time so that we are not just busy but productive too. And we can do it every single day. We can control:

  • What we work on
  • What we prioritise
  • How often we check email
  • What goals we set
  • How often we plan
  • Our energy levels
  • Our focus
  • Our output
  • Our mobile phone notifications (seriously, we can!)

So how can we do this?

There are lots of articles online and great tips and techniques available. But it can be hard to apply these ideas when we are dealing with such busy work lives.

We try out a new idea for a week or so and then our clients need something urgently or we have a product deadline or a busy year end.

Our new habits can go out the window. We get frustrated because although we are trying to improve and be more productive we fail.

Here are some practical tips to help employees become more productive.

  1. Know the priorities for you and your job
  2. Understand how you work
  3. Control your distractions
  4. Manage your focus
  5. Identify routine tasks for low energy times

Tip 1 – Know Your Priorities

Think about it, you can’t become more productive without knowing what’s important for your job, your team, your targets or your career. What are you trying to achieve, what are your goals? Do some thinking and planning. Set weekly and/or daily goals and identify the tasks that will achieve these goals. Now you have your priorities. Focus on achieving these tasks. Protect your time when you are working on them by minimising your distractions (see later).

Remember, if you don’t set your own priorities, someone else probably will.

 Tip 2 – Understand How You Work

The first step in CHANGING how you work is KNOWING how you work. Do this simply by reflecting on what went well and what didn’t at the end of each day. Did you stick to your plan? Did you end up working on unplanned things? Was this the correct decision at the time? Were those unplanned things important to your role? How many distractions did you allow?  Did you let other people’s priorities take your time? Consider also what time of day you are most productive and when you concentrate best.

You can also do this in a structured way. Keep a simple Time Log for a few days or preferably a week (template available at beproductive.ie). This can seem like a painful exercise but people are generally amazed how much they learn about how their time is spent when they actually track it. Once you know this you can take steps to control it.

Tip 3 – Control Your Distractions

Your Time Log analysis will tell you what distracts you. It could be phone calls, social media notifications, message alerts (the unimportant ones) or other people’s requests which are usually their priorities! Take steps to eliminate or at least minimise your distractions now that you are aware of them.

We let ourselves be distracted because sometimes it’s a welcome change from the tough or dull (priority) task we are working on. And that’s okay if you chose to do this for a set time to refresh and regain your focus.

But the trick is to do it deliberately and control the time you spend. We’ve all been there: “I’ll just check this Twitter notification” and 30 minutes later we’re still on our phone!

So for electronic notifications:

  • Analyse all the notifications you receive. Are you giving them all the same priority?

Are you letting a Twitter interaction distract you as much as the alert for an email from an important client?

  • Turn off the low priority notifications
  • Check Twitter or other social media interactions at a set frequency that makes sense for your business.
  • Consider if you can have periods in the day or week when your email alerts can be on silent. Take control.

Tip 4 – Manage Your Focus

Being productive is not just about being organised and sticking to your plan. It’s about producing the best work you can. It’s about the outcomes you achieve. We sometimes feel unproductive even when we have created the uninterrupted time to work on an important piece of work. This is because we can lose our focus which can really affect our output.

Our focus is affected by our energy levels and this in turn is affected by what we eat, whether we take breaks, how much we sleep. When we’re in busy roles we often compromise these factors.  But simply being aware of their impact helps us make some small adjustments.

Even a 15 minute walk around the block at lunch time can work or maybe sometimes eat a banana instead of that chocolate bar! Here are some more tips on maintaining focus.

Tip 5 – Identify Routine Tasks for Low Energy Times

Most jobs include plenty of routine, so-called “lower priority” tasks such as, updating a database, sending follow-up emails, arranging meetings, ordering supplies or maybe subscribing to a newsletter to stay informed.

Some of these tasks may actually become high priority and urgent if not addressed. Some of these don’t require peak concentration or energy so a good approach is to do them in batch at a time when you know you are not at your peak productivity.

For example between 3pm and 5pm on a Friday can be a great time to do new contact follow-up emails when your energy may be low after a busy week.

You are still being productive because you are getting things done.

Being Productive Helps you Be Happy

Try these changes and you have every chance of making 2017 your most productive and happy year ever. Also keep checking www.beproductive.ie and @beproductive_ie as we constantly post tips and articles.

Productivity Experiment No Coffee

Productivity Experiment – No Coffee for 6 Weeks!

“Giving Up” FOR Lent

Today marks the start of Lent which in Ireland is a 6 week period before Easter when many people “give something up”. Lent actually lasts for 40 days and 40 nights, from Ash Wednesday (today 1st March) to Easter Sunday. We often joke that it’s not the 40 days but the 40 nights that gets you! The custom is based on the religious concept of penance that most Irish Catholics were born into. It is all about preparation for Easter. As kids this usually meant giving up our favourite sweets or chocolate treats. Then on Easter Sunday we would be rewarded with piles of chocolate Easter Eggs. It was always worth the sacrifice as we rose at dawn and gorged ourselves and usually felt quite ill by mid-morning on that Spring Sunday.

St Patrick’s Day

A great quirk of this Irish Lenten penance is of course the reprieve we get on St Patricks Day. March 17th is our national feast day and always seems to fall nicely in the middle of Lent. A “special dispensation” means us Paddies can eat all the treats we like on this day. Love it.

Old habits die hard  a lot of adults still give up something we enjoy. Some of the more mature folk amongst us take something up instead, something virtuous and giving. But this year I will be “giving up” and for some crazy reason, I have decided that my “sacrifice” will be coffee.

No Coffee for 6 Weeks

I know! I’m worried too! Because I love coffee. I love really good coffee. I have favourite coffee houses and would often travel a distance to get good coffee. I don’t drink that much – maximum 2 cups per day. But it seems to give me a boost and I often have a burst of productivity for about 2 hours after a strong cup.

So……let’s see what happens. I consumed my last cup of coffee yesterday. 40 days of tea and smoothies looms! How hard will it be? How will it affect my daily routine, my focus, my productivity?

Join me in this adventure as I post a weekly update. If anyone has any advice or experience of coffee abstinence I would like to hear it. And of course if you too are joining the Lenten penance party, be sure  to let us all know.