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.