How to Manage Email and Increase Productivity

Picture the scene. You come into work with a clear idea of what you want to get done. You start working on a task and begin to focus until you are distracted by a flurry of email notifications, each demanding your time and attention. Sound familiar? If so, you are one of the millions of us whose productivity may be damaged by email.

Email has been a part of office life for so long that few of today’s office workers can remember a time before it was commonplace. In the days before email, post was received in the workplace perhaps only once or twice a day, whereas nowadays workers will receive messages at any time and through a variety of devices and media. Years ago, you would typically have to wait a day or so to receive a reply to a message; today a reply is expected almost immediately, adding to workplace pressure. This is not always an effective or efficient way of working.

Contrary to common belief, there is no such thing as ‘multitasking’. All we do is flip between tasks and activities quickly, reducing our focus and concentration in the process. Imagine you are working on a report and you receive an email on a totally different subject, requesting your input on something. You may think that it will be more efficient to send an immediate reply. Doing so, however, will break your concentration on the task at hand and you will need time to refocus and get ‘back on track’.

The stop and start approach to work also increases the chance of making a mistake or losing your train of thought. I’ve lost count of the number of times when, due to interruption, I’ve left a sentence half written and, on returning to it, I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say!

I’ve recently decided to be much stricter with my use of email. Instead of being at the mercy of my inbox, I deliberately choose to ‘work offline’ when working on anything that requires extended thought and concentration. The result is that I complete tasks more quickly and to a higher standard. I can then sort out my emails later, at a dedicated time, in a more efficient and systematic manner.

The same applies for text messaging or social media. Turning off notifications can be disconcerting at first. You feel you might be missing out or that something urgent might occur. The chances are, however, that any messages you receive can be dealt with afterwards and, if a crisis unfolds, someone will no doubt call you or come to see you in person.  

Of course, you can’t completely cut yourself off. It’s important to check up on messages at regular intervals throughout the day but the key is not to be a servant to them.

Some people may fear being confronted by a mountain of emails when they log back in - a full inbox can be a daunting sight!  As emails mount up, they can cause stress and anxiety. It is therefore important to keep on top of things. To do this, you need to be able to prioritise your emails.

A useful approach to this is to:

  • Skim-read the emails in the inbox
  • Work out the urgency and importance of each email
  • Estimate the time it will take to deal with the emails

If enquiries are straightforward and can be completed effortlessly within a few minutes, reply to these first. Quick responses will help you clear your inbox in a short space of time. Next, you can approach the remaining emails. These will take more time and effort to complete and should be organised in order of priority (i.e. urgent and important messages should be dealt with first, followed by important but unurgent messages). Some emails, such as notifications, e-newsletters and social media updates, are generally unimportant and not urgent and require no action. It is best to delete these or move them to a different folder.

The way we manage emails depends on the individual requirements of our role. If you work in customer services, you are unlikely to have the luxury of being able to switch off your emails. However, it is always wise to consider how you manage and organise your workload, including your emails, and to think about ways in which you can become more productive.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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