In our day and age, mastering email productivity is a key skill for the knowledge worker. It’s as important — if not more — as being great at teamwork, communication, and problem-solving.
We spend half of our workday checking email. It transitioned from an asynchronous form of communication to an “always-on” technology by convention.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of replying to lots of emails throughout the day and feel like work. It’s not. Email is a means to an end—completing projects, solving bottlenecks, setting meetings—, not the end itself. There’s a difference.
These are the 9 “Email Best Practices” you must adopt to level up your email productivity. Process communications faster and focus on work and projects outside your inbox.
#1 Adopt GTD Methodology in Email
One of the “quick wins” to become more productive on email is adopting a set of options you can take for each communication.
Drawing on the GTD methodology, think of every email you get as either something you need to take action on, track, or refer to later. Having only 3 possible types of actions simplifies processing email in bulk. Less is more.
You just got an email from your boss about the latest project you’re involved in. This is a “take action on” type of email.
You quickly shoot a message for another member of the team to set up a meeting and discuss next steps. That’s a “track” type of email.
You then write some ideas relevant for discussion in that meeting and email yourself. You will need these notes in the meeting later this week, a “refer to later” type of email.
In line with the GTD methodology, emails — and every other task-based item — should only be touched once. Every time you open a conversation, decide right away what to do with it. Don’t postpone and come back to it. You touch it once and move on.
When you make quick decisions like this, it’s easy to instantly realize which ones of these actions to take on your emails. Archive the email straight after replying. This workflow helps you make decisions and quickly get to Inbox Zero.
If you have an email you don’t really want to handle, beat procrastination by using the 2-Minute rule to overcome the barrier of getting started.
#2 Create an Email Productivity System
The second step to becoming more efficient at email is to use a productivity system to process incoming communications.
Some people like to use folders with specific actions (do, delegate, reply), while others prefer the deadline-driven approach (today, tomorrow, next week). I’ve seen systems with labels, filters, and a combination of both.
I built my own email productivity system, which I like to call GTD Gmail. I use the inbox as a task manager, saving all conversations that need action on — a reply, a reminder or a task — while still keeping an inbox zero.
There’s no “definitive” system. The best framework is the one that works for you. Ideally, it should model your work style, supporting the way you work (and not the other way around). Bonus points if it’s low-maintenance, fast to set up, and adaptable as your work changes.
Build your own productivity system to start using organizing your email better and get out of it exactly what you want and need.
#3 Power Up Your Email with Plugins
Take advantage of plugins to power up your inbox and build on top of your email productivity system.
The combination of system and plugins saves thousands of hours per year processing email, which you can use to make progress in meaningful work.
These are the three essential Gmail tricks you must use:
We’re all guilty of accidentally pressing the send button.
To enable undo send, go to Settings > General, find “Undo Send”, and choose 10 seconds from the drop-down. Save changes and wait for your Gmail to reload.
Now, every time you send an email by mistake you just need to click “undo” at the top yellow bar.
Don’t write the same email over and over again. Instead, create a template that you can reuse with canned responses.
Go to Settings > Labs, find “Canned Responses” and click “Enable”. Save your changes and your Gmail will reload.
When composing a new email, click the arrow on the right inferior corner and choose “Canned responses” > “New canned response” to save as a template.
Send and Archive
Automatically archive an email after replying to it using the send and archive button.
Navigate to Settings > General, find “Send and Archive” and click “Show Send & Archive button in reply”. Save your changes.
You now have an additional blue button when replying to an email in your inbox. Use it every time you are replying to an email to automatically archive it.
#4 Receive Fewer Emails
Now that you have a workflow for processing incoming conversations and a system for email productivity, it’s time to reduce the number of emails you get. Because: Workflow + System + Fewer Emails = More Time for Deep Work.
Here are 6 ways to receive fewer emails:
- Unsubscribe: from anything you don’t need, such as newsletters, groups, mailing lists, and notifications. You just cut the volume of emails received by 80% in one swoop
- Send fewer emails: to get less email, send less. The more you send, the more you get. Not every email needs a response
- Don’t answer right away: many “urgent” emails tend to solve themselves if people don’t get a reply
- Be succinct: don’t write ten sentences when two are needed. Reply to every email in three sentences or less
- Respond with statements: don’t reply “Maybe 10 or 11 am, what do you think?” to schedule a meeting time, be assertive “10 am.”
- Get Personal: sometimes it’s easier to call or talk face-to-face. Personal interactions beat email any day of the week
Follow these principles to cut your incoming email by 95%.
#5 Understand the Different Types of Emails
Email serves as a communication channel for different types of conversations: work and updates on projects, meeting notes, newsletters, company updates, team and product reports, clients, etc.
As such, communications can be grouped into different categories that call for specific types of actions. All your emails fit into one of the following 6 categories:
- Respond today: reply immediately if urgent, at the end of the workday if important
- Respond later: schedule time in the calendar in the future to reply
- Optional response: no need to respond, but it would be nice of you to
- Not important and no need to reply: archive or delete
- Read later: file into a specific folder and read in your spare time (e.g. newsletters and reports)
- Filling: file into a specific folder (e.g. purchase receipts, copies of important documents, travel arrangements)
#6 Practice Good Email Etiquette
Mastering communication over email is an art. You want to be succinct but also get your message across. In an email, every word counts.
Here are seven ways to get the results you’re looking for:
- Keep it short: practice brevity by taking an email you’ve already written in the normal fashion and edit it down to half the words
- Make it scannable: use short paragraphs and formatting to make sure your content is read
- Avoid squishy words: avoid writing “I feel”, “I’m not sure”, “perhaps”, using the passive voice, or any adverbs that waste time for both you and your recipient and create confusion and misunderstandings
- Know what you want: think about the intended outcome of the email and outline it first in plain-spoken language. With practice, this outline IS your email
- Bold the important: if you need a reply from a particular person on a thread with multiple people, put their name in bold with action items and timeline
- Keep conversations small: only include the people who need to be a part of the discussion
- Forwarding code of conduct: never forward along a massive email chain without a few bullet points as a quick summary at the top explaining why you’re sending it and action items you need from the other person
#7 Schedule Email Time
If you’re like most people, you check your email frequently (or even “obsessively”). The average adult checks their email 45 times. Yet nobody has claimed to have changed the world by checking email.
Treat checking emails as you would any other tasks: a to-do. Schedule specific times in your calendar to process email. And reduce the times you check email to 2 per day: one in the late morning and another in the late evening.
Here are four other important takeaways:
- Turn off email notifications: if you’re not going to check email, why do you need the dings? Stop being Pavlovian and choose deliberately when to check email
- Don’t check your email before 11 am: spend the early morning performing Deep Work on critical work that moves the needle on your goals
- Have an end time: one Pomodoro cycle (25 minutes) per session is more than enough to process email; you’re not allowed to check email after that (don’t worry, they’ll still be on your inbox tomorrow)
- Close your email software: if you’re done, close it. Out of sight, out of mind
And no, it does not take “only a minute or two” to scan your inbox. Once you open that black hole, you’ll reply to a few emails and wonder 30 minutes later why you’re still there. This is only going to work if you are truthful to yourself.
#8 Use Automatic Responses
When you get an email, people intrude on your work schedule and priorities. You are expected to reply asap and work on their schedule. I find that ridiculous.
Train other people to respect your productivity, work, and time by using an automatic response. Long-term sustainable email productivity is about selective ignorance. Let people know you’re checking emails less often in order to be more productive.
Here are two templates you can copy and use right now:
- “Thank you for your email! Due to my current workload, I am only checking email at 11 am and 4 pm. If you need anything immediately please call me on my cell so that I can address this important matter with you. Thank you and have a great day!”
- “Let me apologize — if you don’t get an immediate response. My phone may be turned off. I am trying to be less distractible, more deliberative, and more mindful. I am hoping this will make us all more productive. If you need me — and this is urgent, or timely — please call my office or my cell. If this is a weekend or an evening, and this is NOT urgent, let’s talk during the week. For personal matters, call me, find me, see me — let’s talk, not text. Let’s try this.”
#9 Inbox Zero in 10 Minutes
It’s easy to let the inbox pile up to 50 or more unread messages, either due to a vacation or putting your focus on more pressing matters.
Here’s a simple email productivity hack you can use to reach inbox zero in 10 minutes:
- Create a folder in your email inbox named “sort”
- Pick a topic that describes several of your unread messages
- Move all messages related to that topic into the sort folder
- Go into the folder and process the messages until the folder is empty
- Return to your inbox and loop back to Step 2 with another topic. Repeat until the inbox is empty
This sounds too simple to make a big difference. However, tackling all related messages one after another ends up being much easier than reading emails in a less structured manner.
A Daily Battle
Every day we get hundreds of new messages.
Email can quickly make you feel you’re like a hamster on a wheel. It’s a daily battle. And it never ends.
Used the right way, email can increase productivity. Unfortunately, that’s not how most people and companies use it. So your best course of action is to adapt to the reality.
Incorporate some — if not all — of these email productivity best practices is the key to start the battle with an edge.
Rule technology, instead of letting it rule you.