Modern society presents no shortage of productivity challenges. While social media is often portrayed as the distractor-in-chief, research suggests that email — not our addiction to memes and cat videos — is the top offender. According to Atlassian (the company behind popular project management tools like Jira and Trello), the average employee receives over 300 business emails per week and checks their email 36 times per hour.
Yes, you did the math right — that’s more than once every two minutes.
Spending too much time checking email can hamper your productivity at work and make it difficult to stay focused on your to-do list tasks. Over the years, I’ve refined my email workflow in an effort to boost my personal productivity, and the list below highlights a few of the tips, tricks and tools I’ve found most helpful.
If you’re struggling with email overload, consider trying these email productivity hacks.
- 1. Touch Every Email Only Once
- 2. Utilize Artificial Intelligence
- 3. Schedule Dedicated Email Time
- 4. Snooze Emails Until They’re Relevant
- 5. Keep Your Folder System Simple
- 6. Use Autoresponders, Snippets and Templates
- 7. Keep Your Emails Concise
- 8. Use Email for Communication (Not Project Management)
- 9. Use Keywords in Your Subjects
- 10. Skip Email and Use the Phone
- Bonus Tip: Stop Sending Emails to the Wrong People
1. Touch Every Email Only Once
Whether you’re striving for inbox zero or just trying to increase productivity, one of the most effective tactics you can employ is the one-touch rule.
That’s because moving through your inbox fluidly — jumping from message to message without any structure or strategy — is a colossal waste of time. It’s an approach that allows you to read your emails passively; to peruse them when you should be actively processing them.
The average employee checks their email 23 times per hour.
The one-touch rule eliminates that problem by forcing you to take immediate action every time you open a new message. Since you can only “touch” each email once, you no longer have the option of reading a message and telling yourself you’ll circle back to it later — you’re required to take the appropriate action for that message on the spot.
When you adopt this rule, you should keep your set of available actions as simple as possible. Four good ones are:
- Reply: If your colleague sends you a message with a time-sensitive question, or your boss emails you asking for a status update on an approaching deadline, you should reply and then immediately archive the conversation.
- Defer: “One-touch” doesn’t mean you’re obligated to respond to an email as soon as you see it. In fact, quite the opposite is true — trying to reply to every request in real-time will destroy your overall productivity. When someone requests information that isn’t time-sensitive or which requires research, move it to a folder for messages you’ll address later in the day or week. This also helps you stay on top of your correspondence by consolidating every message that needs a reply in one place, instead of leaving them scattered across a cluttered inbox where they can be forgotten.
- Follow: Sometimes you’ll be CCd on a message about a project, or you’ll email yourself notes to refer to later. Instead of leaving those messages in your inbox, move them to a dedicated folder where you can easily review them when needed.
- Archive or delete: Chances are that most of the email you receive requires no action — just delete or archive it immediately.
Your list may vary based on your job, your workflow, and your particular use of email, but it should not become expansive. Improving email productivity requires streamlining and simplification — you want to focus on what matters and skip what doesn’t.
If you start overcomplicating your system, you’ll end up spending too much time organizing things. Remember, the goal is to spend as little time in your inbox as possible.
2. Utilize Artificial Intelligence
Modern technology has exposed us to productivity challenges that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago, with email being at the top of the list. However, that same technology is being used to address those challenges and mitigate their negative effects.
When it comes to email, there are many innovations designed to help. Outlook has a suite of built-in organizational tools, and Gmail constantly adds new features and productivity apps.
But as someone who uses email professionally — and who gets hundreds of messages per day — those tools aren’t quite as powerful as I’d like. That’s why I’m a big fan of SaneBox, a subscription service that uses artificial intelligence to automatically streamline my inbox.
SaneBox’s goal is to help people focus on what matters. It automates the most tedious tasks associated with email management by identifying and filtering less important messages into a separate folder (called SaneLater). Here’s a link to a quick video that shows how it works.
One big advantage of SaneBox compared to other similar tools is that it’s cloud-based, which means you don’t need to install any client-side software. It works directly with your mailbox on the backend. However, that also means you have to give SaneBox the credentials to your email account(s). SaneBox is used by major corporations and has a reputation for properly protecting your credentials, so I trust the company with my email passwords.
Aside from its default AI filtering, SaneBox offers a number of other great productivity apps. Some of my favorites include:
- SaneDigest: Every day, SaneBox sends you a summary of your unread messages, allowing you to quickly scan everything in one place. If you’re worried about missing an important email, you have the ability to change the frequency of the digest — for example, you can receive it every hour instead of every day.
- Custom folders: You’re not limited to SaneLater or SaneBox’s other preconfigured folders. In fact, the best part about the service is the ability to create custom folders. You can name them anything — personal emails, reminders, whatever — and then train the AI by simply dragging and dropping messages.
- SaneBlackHole: Instead of unsubscribing from email lists (which often either doesn’t work, or results in even more emails by confirming that your address is both real and active), just drag junk mail into the SaneBlackHole. Messages from those senders will go straight to trash from that point forward.
Before I signed up for SaneBox, I dreaded dealing with my email inbox. I had to sort through hundreds of messages to find the ones that I needed to act on; it sucked up my time and drained my mental energy.
SaneBox works with every email client and app, and plans are available that support multiple email accounts.
SaneBox is a subscription-based service, and I think it’s worth every penny. To me, time is money, and the less I get distracted by emails that don’t need immediate attention (and the less time I spend managing my inbox), the more time I can devote to being productive. For that, I’m willing to pay because there’s an apparent return on investment (ROI).
SaneBox offers three plans, called “Snack,” “Lunch” and “Dinner,” that cost $7, $12 and $36 per month, and which can accommodate one, two and four email accounts respectively. I have four email accounts that I use SaneBox with, and instead of signing up for the “Dinner” plan, I created two separate “Lunch” accounts. I did that because I only use two or three of the optional features per account.
If you want to take control of your inbox, I highly recommend SaneBox. They offer a free 14-day trial, and you can use the link below to get a $5 credit.
Pair SaneBox with Mail Act-On
Another tool that I use in combination with SaneBox is Mail Act-On, which is part of SmallCubed’s MailSuite, a collection of plugins for the Apple Mail app.
Mail Act-On gives me a simple way to automate the filing of emails into the appropriate SaneBox folders by using custom-defined keystrokes. For example, typing Command (⌘) + B will automatically move a message into the SaneBlackHole.
What’s especially valuable about Mail Act-On is that it allows me to assign the same keystroke combination to multiple email accounts.
As you can see in the screenshot below, I have separate email addresses for my day job, my blog, and personal use. Each of those addresses has its own corresponding SaneBox. When I hit Command (⌘) + B to move a message, Mail Act-On is smart enough to send that message to the appropriate destination.
In other words, my personal emails never get filed to my work SaneBox, which could interfere with the program’s AI and machine learning process. If Mail Act-On wasn’t able to correctly route messages, I would have to define a unique keystroke for each mailbox, adding a layer of complexity.
On a side note, MailSuite also comes with the priceless ability to delay the sending of messages for a user-specified period of time.
3. Schedule Dedicated Email Time
One of the reasons email negatively impacts our productivity is because it’s omnipresent. It’s usually the first thing we look at when we log on to our computer, and most of us get a steady stream of pings and notifications about new messages on our smartphones.
In today’s society, we tend to operate under the assumption that people are always connected and thus always accessible. So, understandably, we often feel an implicit pressure to monitor our inbox and respond to messages in something close to real-time. But this leads to a couple of different problems:
First, it absolutely kills our concentration.
Have you ever tried to write a memo when the phone just won’t stop ringing? It’s extremely difficult to be productive when you can’t stay focused.
Every time your mind gets distracted from the task at hand, it has to refocus when you return to that task. For most people, that refocusing process takes time (about 16 minutes, according to Atlassian). I’m sure you’ve experienced this — it takes you forever to get started writing something, but once you get locked in, you feel like you’re “in the zone.” That’s because you’re focused.
Every time you check your email, you break your focus. And if you do this dozens of times throughout the day, you force your mind into a constant state of oscillation between tasks. That slows down your progress and negatively impacts the quality of your work.
Second, it creates an unrestricted obligation.
Chances are you have an actual job that is not primarily reading and responding to emails. You should be focusing on doing that job. But when you allow yourself to check your email whenever and wherever, you’re essentially telling yourself (and your colleagues) that checking email is your top priority, and that there’s no limit to how much time you can spend on it.
That’s a time management strategy that’s doomed from the start. Have you ever added up how much time you actually spend on email every day? I bet you’d be shocked at how each of those few minutes of distraction adds up over the course of a day or a week.
Scheduling specific blocks of time to manage your email helps you avoid both of those problems.
One strategy that I think makes a lot of sense is to schedule a little bit of email time first thing in the morning, and a bigger chunk towards the middle of the day. Some management and productivity gurus advise against starting the day with email, but I think it’s reasonable to check in and make sure there’s nothing that needs your immediate attention.
The key is to limit this time; 10 or 15 minutes should suffice. Then, stick to that limit! Don’t go down the rabbit hole. If there’s nothing that requires an immediate action, don’t touch it — you’ll come back to your inbox later.
And whatever you do, don’t check your work email at home. That’s a bad habit that will throw off your work-life balance and cause you stress in the long run.
4. Snooze Emails Until They’re Relevant
Snoozing allows you to temporarily archive a message until a later date, when it will reappear in your inbox. This is a surprisingly powerful tool for both decluttering your email and making sure you see messages when they’re actually relevant.
While it’s true that you could archive messages and search for them later, snoozing items you know you’ll need in the future is exceptionally convenient — especially if you set the timing correctly.
For example, I travel frequently for work and I snooze all my travel-related emails, such as trip itineraries, flight confirmations and hotel reservations. I could search for each message every time I need the information, but it’s so much easier to just snooze them until a few hours before my departure, at which time they all reappear at the top of my inbox.
Gmail has a built-in snooze feature, but as I primarily use Apple’s Mail app, I turned to MailButler — a plugin the features an array of tools that I used to help manage my inbox and my overall email workflow.
Free Email Organizer: MailButler
Feingeist Software, the developer behind MailButler, calls the app “Your personal assistant for Apple Mail.” It’s a very well-designed plugin that adds the following features (which the native Mail app is missing):
- Snooze: By snoozing an email, you’ll make it temporarily disappear from your Inbox.
- Follow-up: Get a follow-up reminder when there’s no response to a particular email.
- Tracking: Lets you know if the recipient has opened your email.
- Scheduling: Lets you send emails at a specific date and time in the future.
- Essential features: Cloud Upload, Undo Send, Attachment Reminder, Direct Inbox and much more.
Tracking: The MailButler feature I value the most is tracking. I work in sales, and knowing if a prospect has opened my email is valuable information. However, there is a catch. MailButler, like other software with similar tracking capabilities, relies on a tiny transparent image (a so-called tracking pixel), embedded in every email you send.
When the recipient opens the email and downloads the tracking pixel, MailButler tracks the “open” action. If the recipient’s email client doesn’t download remote images, or if the user doesn’t do it manually, the “open” action can’t be tracked.
Interestingly enough, “download remote images” is the default setting in many email clients, including Apple Mail on iOS and macOS. I have that setting disabled on all my devices because it’s also used by spammers to verify that they have a real address. But in my experience, most people I correspond with have this setting enabled.
Attachment Reminder: How often have you sent an email saying something like “please find attached…” but forgot to include the attachment? It’s happened to me more than a few times. Fortunately, MailButler caught my mistake, reminding me that I had forgotten to attach anything to the email.
Cloud Upload: For larger attachments, I let MailButler upload the attached files to Dropbox and automatically embed a link, thus reducing the size of the email. This can be especially helpful when emailing outside of your own organization, as some corporate email servers restrict the size of incoming messages.
MailButler has a free version that’s limited to what Feingeist calls “Essential Features” and 30 “Professional Actions.” To unlock unlimited Professional Actions or MailButler’s business features, you have to pay a subscription fee. At about $7.50 per month (if paid yearly), the Pro subscription fee is very reasonable.
MailButler is among my most-used apps, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who uses a Mac for work. You can download MailButler directly here.
5. Keep Your Folder System Simple
It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s possible to be too organized. A recent study conducted by IBM Research observed over 300 email users who performed over 85,000 so-called “refining actions,” like creating and modifying their email folder structures. The researchers compared the efficiency of those users to other people who did either a little or absolutely nothing. Here’s what they found:
“Our data support opportunistic access. People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success.”IBM Research
In other words, there’s limited net benefit to all of that organization and planning, because it takes more work than the time it saves.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use folders. As I noted in Tip #1 and my comments on SaneBox, I think using a couple of well-thought-out folders is an important part of effectively managing your inbox. But trying to use dozens of them will probably do more harm than good.
6. Use Autoresponders, Snippets and Templates
If you’re anything like me, you find yourself sending identical messages over, and over, and over. Here are a few of the requests I most commonly reply to:
- A vendor or manufacturer wants me to review their product.
- A reader wants to submit a guest blog.
- A company wants to advertise on my blog.
It makes no sense to waste time drafting a new email for each of these requests. In each case, I’m going to thank the sender for their interest and refer them to the appropriate page on my website. So, I have a set of canned responses, and I’m able to save hours by simply copying and pasting.
This concept is simple enough, and I suspect many readers are already using it. But what can really boost your productivity is pairing templates with autoresponders.
Let’s say you have a blog that publishes reviews, and you have a page that tells vendors how to get in touch with you. If you have a contact form on that page, you can easily adjust the settings so that correspondence sent through that form comes to you with a specific subject — “Review Request,” for example
Then, you can configure your email client to automatically reply to any incoming messages containing the phrase “Review Request” in the subject with one of your canned responses. That way, you don’t even have to copy and paste.
Depending on the similarity of the messages you receive, using this method has the potential to automate a sizable portion of your total email volume.
Using “Snippets” Can Also Save You Time
Of course, there are occasions when you’ll still need to manually type an email. In these cases, TextExpander (a paid app that costs about $4 per month) can save you a significant chunk of time.
Here’s how it works:
TextExpander utilizes “snippets,” which are custom strings of text that you create to use as shorthand when composing emails or other written work. Whenever you type a snippet, the app automatically replaces that shorthand with the corresponding full text.
This can be a great keystroke-saving hack for things you type repeatedly, like URLs and addresses. For example, I have a snippet called .url, which automatically adds https://michaelkummer.com, and one called .address, which inserts my full work mailing address.
But you can also use TextExpander for more complex functions.
Whenever I publish a review of a new product, I email the manufacturer to let them know. Since this is an email I send over and over, I created a template for it. I then created a snippet (.revpub) so that I can automatically call up that template in whichever app I happen to be working in — TextExpander works in almost every program, including Outlook and Apple’s Mail app.
When creating a template in TextExpander, you have the ability to add a number of dynamic strings and fill-ins. Below is a screenshot that shows what this looks like in my .revpub template — notice the bubbles prompting me to add the appropriate name, product title, etc.
You can configure snippets with a wide array of options, including automatically pasting the contents of your clipboard into the expanded text.
7. Keep Your Emails Concise
There’s no need to write a novel via email. Keeping your messages brief and to the point saves both you and the recipient time. It’s also a more effective form of communication.
One of the best ways to reduce the length of your email prose is by focusing on actionable content. In other words, state clearly what steps you want the recipient to take, and/or what you hope will result from your message. Avoid going into too much background or contextual detail, which makes it harder to identify the key points of your message.
Of course, sometimes background and context are necessary. If so, pick up the phone, draft a memo, or go speak to your colleague in person. The point isn’t to limit the flow of information — it’s to reorient our relationship to information so that we’re producing it in the most productive way possible.
If you need to provide context on an action item, you’ll probably write about it more clearly and effectively in the form of a memo than as a 1,000-word free-form email.
8. Use Email for Communication (Not Project Management)
Email is a great tool when you need to pass along a piece of information, or when you need a question answered. But it’s an absolutely terrible tool when it comes to project management. Unfortunately, many people and organizations fall into this trap, and if you’ve ever been caught up in it, I’m sure you know just how much of an absolute time drain it can be.
There are numerous reasons why email is a horrendous project management tool, but here are two of the most glaring:
- Email threads bury information. You often have to dig through multiple emails to find the relevant context and information. To make matters worse, sometimes previous replies have been inexplicably deleted. Occasionally, someone will change the subject, leading to a split thread. It’s an absolute, soul-sucking mess.
- People get cut out of the loop. When you’re working with a project management tool that has a central hub, it’s easy to manage user access and make sure every member of the team has access to the information they need to get the job done. But when you start organizing and coordinating via email, information doesn’t always get sent to the right people, and it becomes much harder to monitor the overall progress of the project.
In my opinion, countless hours are wasted trying to coordinate projects over email. There’s frequent miscommunication and rampant organizational chaos.
A better use of email for projects is something like:
“Hey Michael, could you take a look at the Trello board? I added you to a card but I’m not sure if you’ve seen it yet. Please reply on the card. Thanks.”
9. Use Keywords in Your Subjects
We all have to search for emails from time to time. Using a standardized subject format that includes keywords can help you quickly find what you’re looking for later.
For example, some people might use the following subject line:
“Hey Michael, just following up on our last email.”
But if that showed up in a list of search results, would you have any idea about the content of the message?
A better option would be something like:
“Advertising Inquiry: Promoting new keto shakes on MichaelKummer.com – Follow Up”
If you include “MichaelKummer.com” in every email you send me, you’ll be able to quickly find those emails if you ever need to review our correspondence history. Likewise, if you include “keto shakes” in every email you send about that product, you can quickly pull them up.
10. Skip Email and Use the Phone
These days, email tends to be our default mode of correspondence — especially in professional settings and with people we don’t know very well. I think that’s because it’s easy and comfortable; it doesn’t require any of that pesky face-to-face communication that’s becoming increasingly antiquated.
However, one of the best email productivity tips I have to give you is this: you can sometimes save time and frustration by opting not to use email in the first place.
Some things are difficult to express in text, especially if you’re not the most skilled writer in the world. Even if you’re a great writer, not everyone reads carefully. When you speak to someone on the phone, there’s a real-time, two-way transfer of information that can help you avoid miscommunication.
And as anachronistic as it may be, I have found myself increasingly turning to this option. I find that it tends to be quicker and more effective in many situations.
Bonus Tip: Stop Sending Emails to the Wrong People
Apple Mail has a little-known but extremely useful setting that can help you avoid sending messages to the wrong recipients. Turning this setting on (as pictured in the screenshot below) will tell Mail to mark in red recipients whose email addresses don’t match the specified domain. (You can add multiple domains by separating them with commas.)
This is especially useful for making sure work-related emails are always sent to company-owned domains, which can improve security and reduce the effectiveness of phishing attempts.
I hope the items on this list have given you some email productivity ideas that will help you improve your time management, your productivity at work, and your work-life balance.
Remember, it’s almost never critical to respond to emails the second they hit your inbox. I recommend turning off your phone’s “new email” notifications (and most other notifications, for that matter), and refraining from checking email except during your designated, pre-scheduled time blocks.
You should also make liberal use of available technology to automate repetitive tasks. The artificial intelligence service offered by SaneBox can automatically filter your emails so that you can focus on what’s most important, and combining autoresponders with canned templates can dramatically increase productivity for some people.
What are some of the best email productivity hacks you’ve used to stop wasting time and get a handle on your inbox? Have you tried any innovative workflow tweaks that have made it easier to get through your daily to-do list? Let me know in the comments section below!
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