The secret to a successful, productive work day is really no secret at all. For most of us a productive work day includes completed tasks, fresh goals, and a plan for tomorrow. However, to grasp these productive type days we must stay focused and minimize distractions as much as possible. Many of us begin our work day in our office, coffee in hand, and it’s usually shortly thereafter that we make our first major mistake of the day- we open our e-mail.
There are few things that are more detrimental to your precious to do list than checking your e-mail first thing in the morning. This habit sets you up to be reactive rather than proactive throughout the remainder of your day. An anxious e-mail from someone requesting your attention can quickly sideline your laser focus from your own to do list and put you to work on someone else’s list. At that point, you are no longer working towards your goals for the day, you are working towards theirs. While there is definitely a time and place for assisting others, responding to others’ emails as you start the day sets the tone and alters your productivity for the whole day.
Fortunately, Check Off Your List has a solution that we actively use and would love to share with you!
We are fans and users of a technique called ‘Batch Processing’. This technique is exactly what it sounds like, a strategy to process your e-mails in batches of time rather than each time you are interrupted by the ding of a new e-mail entering your inbox. As a matter of fact, a best practice to get into the habit of doing right away is to mute the notification of your e-mail application. This gives you the power to regulate your inbox so that your inbox does not end up regulating you. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious when your inbox notification keeps popping up, especially if you are actively working on a project with a deadline. Eliminating e-mail notifications alleviates stress immediately.
First of all, it is important to set aside blocks of time that are to be used specifically for reading and responding to e-mails. For example, maybe set aside a block of time to check your e-mail at 10 am, 1 pm, and a few minutes before you leave the office for the day. Mark these increments of time on your calendar just like you would an appointment and stick to the schedule.
NOTE: If you’re actively waiting on something urgent, plan to check your e-mail more frequently. Do this by filtering your inbox by recipient. When you glance at your inbox, you will only see the desired e-mail and avoid any further distractions.
To optimize the time designated to e-mail, it’s important to have a strategy. Create a filing system that allows you to move e-mails to an appropriate folder the very first time you read the e-mail. E-mails sitting in your inbox (a.k.a. using your e-mail as a to do list) is a time waster that you probably haven’t even considered as you are forcing yourself to skim (and possibly open) e-mails multiple times before taking any action. To quickly file e-mails the first time you read them, respond to the e-mail immediately or add the appropriate next steps and pertinent information to your to do list. You can then move the e-mail to a folder that you can easily return to for future reference if needed.
Junk mail can be deleted, or better yet, click “unsubscribe”. Newsletters and mass e-mails that provide value to you can automatically be filtered to a folder for your review when it works best for your schedule. To do this, set up a rule in Outlook, Apple Mail, or your preferred e-mail app to move all e-mails with “unsubscribe” in the e-mail body to a designated folder. Now, you have eliminated those distractions from every entering your inbox again, but you can reap the benefit of their information when it fits your schedule.
As you reply to e-mails, it’s wise to proactively avoid unnecessary back and forth. A tip to improve e-mail communication is to be very specific in your response as you purposefully anticipate the reaction and potential questions of the recipient. Define your desired outcome, anticipate their reply, and answer any potential questions to eliminate several back and forth e-mails that could have been resolved with just one thorough e-mail. For example, instead of saying,
“Let’s meet about this report sometime later this week.”
A better response would be:
“Can you meet about the xyz report? I’m free on 3pm tomorrow or 2pm Friday. Let me know which works better to meet at Starbucks on 53 Avenue.”
Clearly, the second approach saves time and eliminates multiple back and forth e-mails in order to reach the same conclusion.
Overall, fewer e-mails equals less work, and a clean, tidy inbox makes for less stress. By practicing the strategy of processing your e-mails in batches and eliminating e-mail related distractions, you can begin operating a more productive and successful work day right away. As a result, your days will feel more organized as you become more efficient, allowing you to keep your attention focused on your goals and on the most important tasks at hand.