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Ten Email Tips to Increase Your Productivity and Get Control of Your Life Again

David Finkel

September 15, 2014

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In a recent business owner survey we conducted with several thousand of our business owner clients, it became clear that email had eclipsed phone calls and meetings as the single biggest time distraction in business.

It's addictive; it's never-ending, and it's overwhelming.

Here are our top 10 email best practices we think every company should adopt.

1. Use powerful subject lines to streamline the time it takes for your team to process and find the email.

No more blank subject lines, or "Hello . . ." Instead, you and your team should make your subject line a clear, concise description of the email. This clarity helps you screen messages, and it helps you later search for emails you need to find after the fact.

If you are forwarding the email, don't be lazy; redo the subject line to make sense to your recipient and ask that your team do that for you too.

2. Use the "1-2-3" system for your subject line.

  • 1 = Time sensitive and important. Read and take action ASAP.

  • 2 = Action required. Read and take noted action in a reasonable time frame.

  • 3 = FYI. No action required. Scan for content when convenient.

Here's how this might look:

  • 2: Notes from Franklin call 2/5/15 (This tells recipient they need to take action on the email.)

  • 2 Mark; 3 Sarah: Two follow-up items still needed to complete Sullivan Project (This tells Mark he needs to take action and Sarah that this is just FYI for her.)

3. Don't mass "CC" or "BCC."

Only CC or BCC if the person needs the information. Remember, it's not just that one email, but all the subsequent emails in that chain that you'll likely include that person on.

4. Turn off your auto send-and-receive function (or at least reduce the frequency it downloads new email).

Contrary to the way it feels, you don't need to see every email the instant it comes in. Also, turn off email alerts (audio and visual). Instead, intentionally check email when you choose versus when someone hits to send to you. Email alerts only promote compulsive behaviors that kill productivity.

One business coaching client shared that this one tip alone increased his annual income by over $100,000 per year.

5. To get less email, send less. The more you send, the more you get.

6. If you're involved in a frustrating back-and-forth conversation by email due to a hazy understanding on either side, pick up the phone or speak in person.

Emails are not good as a nuanced conversation tool, and it shouldn't replace all conversations.

7. In replying to a long conversation thread, pull up the key information to the top of the email.

Make it easier for your recipient to get what you are communicating quickly.

Also, if you are creating a longer email with multiple items, consider numbering your items to make them easier for your reader to follow and respond to your email.

8. If you think the topic may be a sensitive one, or that the reader may be upset or offended by your email, don't send it.

Talk with them instead (even if you then send a summary or confirmation email after).

Never say something in an email that you wouldn't be willing to say directly to the person you are speaking to in the email. This guideline goes double for your team. Quickly deal with any inappropriate emails.

9. Don't use email to manage your "tasks" or to manage your team's tasks.

Use a project list on a spreadsheet, or shared task management or project management tool instead. Email is a poor place to keep a running list. What comes today is washed away by what comes later today (let alone tomorrow).

There are simple, inexpensive project management tools available online and on mobile devices that allow you to list, categorize, prioritize, and share your open action items. It's a worthwhile investment to prevent tasks and follow-ups from falling through the cracks.

10. Learn your top five email recipients' preferences.

Just sort your "Sent" folder by the recipient and pick out the five people you send the most email too. These will likely be internal team members.

Ask them if they prefer wide or shallow emails (i.e., one email per subject as it comes up, or a grouped email that has more items in one single email). When are their email-free times? What do they want to and not want to be CC'd on? What are the three things they like best about how you communicate with them by email? What three things would they like you to do differently about how you communicate by email to make their life better? Then reverse the conversation and share your email preferences with them.

BONUS #11 (Can't help giving you more than promised.) Consider aging your email before you respond to get less of it. If something isn't time sensitive or a critical relationship, consider waiting a few days or (gulp!) a few weeks before you reply.

We've all had the experience of immediately replying to an email only to get a reply to our reply ninety-four seconds later. (If you like answering right away, consider using the "delayed delivery" option in most email programs to answer now but send the email later.)

A former Olympic level athlete turned serial entrepreneur, David Finkel is the CEO of Maui Mastermind®, one of the world's premier business coaching companies. He is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of ten books, including Scale: 7 Proven Principles to Grow Your Company and Get Your Life Back, from Penguin Random House.

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