Creative Leadership

Bad Email Habits That Kill Your Productivity and Waste Hours Every Day

It’s time to get serious about your email habits.  Millions of people waste millions of hours because they won’t discipline themselves about how they process the tons of email they receive every day. Studies show we spend almost 1/3 of our day dealing with email, so here’s a list of your biggest email productivity killers – the habits that literally waste hours of your day. Fix these problems and you’ll discover free time you never even knew you had:

1) Not dealing with it completely.  Stop touching an email multiple times. Read it, act on it, and process it. I know people who read the same email five, six, or seven times before they finally do something with it. If it can be done in less than a minute or two, then deal with it now. If it needs to be deferred, then put it into a follow up folder. If you don’t need to act on it at all, then put it in the archive or delete it. Done.

2) Over-communicating.  This is a HUGE problem for some people. First, if you don’t have to respond, then don’t. Second, if you receive a group email then DON’T HIT REPLY ALL. Rarely do you need to reply to everyone, so stop filling our inboxes with more mail!  Third, if someone else on a group email responds satisfactorily, then you don’t need to. Don’t let the “I need to respond so they’ll know I’m important” urge win. Just process it and move on. Which brings me to…

3) Writing long emails.  What a waste of time! Short, direct, and sweet. That’s what people want. Stop writing a book and just tell me what you need! Most of the time, if you send me an email longer than a couple of paragraphs, I’ll delete it unread. Sorry, but true. Most people won’t admit it, but they do the same thing.  Try the 3 sentence method.

4) Responding to Everyone.  In your career, you’ll receive plenty of unrequested emails. There’s no rule that you have to respond to everybody and no shame in it. Guess what? If I send an email to Steven Spielberg, he’s not going to respond. You don’t have to either. Responding to everyone simply takes away precious time that you could be spending on your priorities. It’s not being rude if an email arrives unsolicited, and you think twice about responding – or don’t respond at all.

5) Not using a spam filter.  HUGE waste of time. If you’re not on a system like Gmail, then get a spam filter. Let someone else pick through all the junk so you don’t have to. If you’re deleting more than 2 or 3 spam messages a day, you have the wrong filter company or software. Find something better.

6) Using a Long Folder System.  Email “search” has gotten pretty sophisticated. As a result, you don’t need 68 folders and sub-folders for all the clients, projects, family members, or hobbies in your life. If you’re still using the old folder system, you’re wasting enormous time moving every email into the right folder – and then trying to find it when you need it. Here’s my folder system:

1. Inbox – Whatever comes in to be processed.
2. Follow Up – Things I can’t deal with now but eventually need a response.
3. Read Later – Things that aren’t critical or need a response, but I’d like to read at my leisure.
4. Travel Info – I travel a lot, so this is where I put my itineraries, boarding passes, hotel reservations, rental car info, etc.
5. Reference – App stuff – serial numbers, product keys, etc.
6. Research – Things I need when working on a new book or project.
7. Archive – Everything else.

That’s it. Everything else, I just search for, and guess what? I always find it.  Here’s the IBM research that proves folders don’t work.  In fact, I could probably delete a couple more folders, now that I think of it.

And by the way – I’m not a fanatic about the “Inbox Zero” concept, largely because after using these methods, I only have a handful of emails in my inbox at the end of the day.  (So much less stress!)

You don’t have to use my method, but use some method.  Stop the email rat race and simplify your life. You’re wasting hours each day because you don’t – or won’t – take the time to streamline how you triage your email. When you do, you’ll be more productive, and much happier.

Give it a try. You’ll thank me later!

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  1. Whereas I agree that email can be a killer of time, one of your comments showed more of your personality type than a golden rule. Short pithy responses can actually take longer for both the writer and her reader.

    For the writer – finding the right words. Do those words express what I really feel? Could they be misunderstood? Will the reader feel something that I didn’t intend? Have I left a lose end? Will this end further dialogue that a quick answer exacerbates?

    For the reader – understanding the writer. What did the writer really mean? In their culture what could it mean that is different to my culture? In their personality type are they meaning something different than my personality type? Have they really understood what I wrote? What do they really feel about this? Are they just being nice/nasty?

    I often find with short answers that I revisit – not necessarily physically but in my mind – during the day, kicking over in my mind those questions.

    Email isn’t SMS or Viber where a whole dialogue of messages back and forth on a topic can ensue. SMS is now cheap or bundled with your package (my mobile package, which costs about $2 per month includes no free SMS, but SMS cost just over $0.02 per message). Viber, of course, is free.

    A colleague and I were discussing the change in email a couple of years back, where messaging like SMS had taken over for the short and sharp, and that writing emails were taking longer. Both of us found we were using our thesaurus more to try to find the right word. Both of us found that writing emails were taking longer.

    Short, sharp replies just confuse many of us. It might even prompt me to pick up the phone to discuss it.

    1. Ha! Sounds like your response is based on your personality type as well Richard! Looks like you’re a detail guy. I’m sure you’re right, but email isn’t about writing a novel. If it takes that long to come up with a short message, then you should consider a phone call. Either way, my feeling is that if you’re spending most of your day doing email, then you’re spending your day responding to OTHER people’s priorities, not YOURS. That’s the ultimate point. How can we spend less time reading and writing email, and more time accomplishing what really matters. Great perspective, and thanks for posting.

      1. Yes, it is. Actually I’m ENFP actually and I LOATHE detail. I’m forced by work to do a lot a detail and have spent the last couple of months immersed in detail and am wildly frustrated by it.

        Yes, email does force you to other people’s priorities. I hate that. Then I write emails to try to force them to mine. Power vs power… who controls whom.

        Email isn’t a novel it’s also not short sharp SMS (I really cannot cope with Twitter which is brevity in extremity). It’s electronic mail. I want and need to catch the feeling of the writer or it doesn’t communicate.

        My phone calls are different from my wife too… almost all of hers are under 30 seconds. For me a short 5 minute call is difficult. It’s about relationship building. My feeling is how can we spend less time on tasks and more on relationships. Thank God this is something the Middle East can teach us.

          1. LOL. When we lived in the USA we went to single sex church groups for the first time in our lives. We both came out feeling we were in the wrong group!

  2. The search function I totally agree with. My partner in one business and I have totally different ways of dealing with email. He still files in folders. Loads of them. I just archive everything and search. I don’t even have the sections you do. I used to have many folders for clients/contacts etc etc. Now I just search. Neither of us understand the others method.

    1. Yes – my wife and I are just like that. She has email folders, sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders. She’s convinced it’s more efficient, but it looks like an organizational nightmare to me. For me, search is so much easier and quicker.

  3. Three sentences: United Nations resolutions are always one sentence. They are long. Sentence count doesn’t necessarily mean concise or brief.

    1. You can nit-pick each of these concepts, the vast majority of people get the point. I’ve discovered that with only a few exceptions, if you can’t communicate your message in 1-3 sentences, then you probably shouldn’t be writing the email to begin with.

      1. I’ve noticed the same with forms recently. Many forms have been revised with less space to respond. I did one a couple of weeks ago for a grant application (which we got). The previous year allowed variable space and took me 2-3 hours to complete. This year’s forced small size and took me over a day to complete. Maybe I shouldn’t use email or complete forms. I wish that were so. I really do. But we’re forced into it and it causes stress. But that is part of modern life. Email was a blessing, now a curse.

          1. Now that is a demonstration of the ambiguity of brevity and illustrates my point exactly: I read it and wonder, ‘Did Phil mean the very last sentence as a statement or the entire paragraph as a statement. If the latter did he mean that I should never do email. Or is he saying I’m really a pain and should go away. Or is he agreeing with me that forms and email are getting briefer and more difficult to deal with… or…’

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