Being a freelancer, I’m always on the lookout for things which can help to improve my workflow. One source of productivity tips is the Back To Work podcast with Merlin Mann. For those who don’t know him, Merlin is what I’d call a productivity celebrity. He created 43 Folders, and invented Inbox Zero. You’d think that after 73 episodes of Back To Work, there wouldn’t be much more to talk about. Unfortunately, I’d probably agree! Each episode generally runs for about 90 minutes, and these days only seems to contain 5-10 minutes of what I’d call useful material. So, instead of recommending you go and subscribe, I’m going to detail a few of the things I learned from B2W that have made a big impact on my productivity – and they’re all to do with email.
The first tip is to realise that it’s very unlikely that you work in a job where you need to respond to an email as soon as it arrives. How often are you in a situation where your livelihood depends on you replying to that email instantly? Not very often I’d say. So how long can you leave it? 5 minutes? 30 minutes? 2 hours? Chances are if the sender does require an urgent response, they’re just going to call you up anyway.
Once you’ve realised that checking your email is not all that important, the next thing to do is turn off that badge. You know, that little red badge in your dock which says how many unread emails you have. If you’re anything like me, once you see a red badge you need to care take of it straight away. It’s sits there whispering to you – “hey, unread email over here…hello, pay attention to me”. Not good! Head on in to preferences and get rid of it, and I promise a few days later you won’t miss it at all. Same goes for your iPhone as well – don’t let your email be pushed to your device, set it to manual fetch only.
The next step is to actually quit your email client altogether. I’ve gotten into a bad habit recently of checking my email whenever I’m waiting for something (eg. a build to complete). Naturally there’s one or two emails there waiting to be read, so I read them, and my attention gets pulled away to something else. Instead, try quitting your email client. Then, once you’ve finished a chunk of work, open it back up and take care of your emails all at once. Or if you have enough self control, just stare out the window while you’re waiting for that build to complete. Hands off the mouse!
Depending on how much email you get, you might like to think about Inbox Zero. There’s a few different ways to approach Inbox Zero, but what I like to do is treat my inbox as a bit like a to-do list for the day. If there’s any emails in my inbox, they’re either unread, or they’re emails that I need to care of that day. Once I’ve processed an email (replied to it, stored the attachment, whatever needs to be done), the email gets archived. So at the end of each day, my inbox is empty. The easiest way to get started with Inbox Zero is just to move all your emails to an archive folder – hey presto, Inbox Zero! You can go back and sort those thousands of emails later if you want, but don’t let that task prevent you from starting.
Inbox Zero also works really well with flags. Flags are great for when you want to clear out your inbox, but there’s certain emails you just don’t have time to take care of right now. For example, any personal emails that I might want to look over on the weekend, I flag with a green flag. Any work related emails that I need to follow up on within the next few days I flag with a yellow flag. Any support requests I flag as blue. These emails can then be archived, and I’ll take care of them in a day or two – this is easy to do using a flags smart folder in your email client. So, when I’m dedicating some time to support, I can quickly call up all the emails with a blue flag and get through them.
The last tip I have is to use a different email client for your personal mail. All too often I want to read my email on the weekend, but I get bombarded with work emails – not good for work/personal life balance. This happens in reverse too – when there’s no boss looking over your shoulder it’s all too easy to open up that funny video your friend just sent you. So, find another email client, and use one for personal email, and one for work.
I hope some of these tips were helpful. Email can be a big drain on your productivity, but only if you let it. If you have any others tips, I’d love to hear them!
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