How to Stop Wasting Time on Email

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By Marcelle Yeager

In 2012, the McKinsey Global Institute conducted a study to uncover how much time workers spend on social technologies during the day. It found that employees spend about 28 percent of their days reading and responding to emails. While email is a useful communication and collaboration tool, it is absorbing huge chunks of time that could be spent getting work done.

Some jobs do require a very large amount or almost exclusive use of email. However, if yours doesn't fall into that category, it may be time to re-evaluate how and when you use email. In a world where everyone expects an immediate response to texts and emails, it is hard to not obsessively check your email. However, if you do change your approach, you could cut significant amounts of time off your workday and get out of the office faster.

Good Uses of Email

Sending notifications: If there is something that a large group of colleagues needs to know about, an email is warranted. Try to make it concise so people can read it quickly and decide whether to file, delete or respond. If you must include an attachment, briefly explain what is in it. When you do this, you save people the hassle of opening it if it is something they don't need to read in full.

Following up. Respond to every email. The only exceptions are spam, junk or mass mailings that don't concern you. Most people will agree that read receipts are annoying, so encourage people to stop using those by shooting a quick response to every email you get. It could just be a quick "thank you" or "got it," but it makes a big difference in how people perceive your responsiveness and professionalism. Don't you expect the same and become frustrated when you don't get a response?

Networking. Writing a personalized, considerate note when you want to be introduced to someone for networking purposes is extremely important. The same is true for an email you send to the person you want to meet. You need to provide context and a brief description of what you'd like to learn from them. You could also include what you can offer them as well, even if it's just that – an offer to help however you can.

Thanking people. One of the golden rules of life applies to email as well. When someone helps you on a project or does something nice for you, send a note of thanks. Picking up the phone may be more appropriate in some cases.

Replacing a meeting. No one will argue that meetings are another big time-waster in the office. Many managers and organizations are guilty of this. There are things that can be discussed via email or a quick phone call without disrupting quality work time.

Poor Uses of Email

Letting people know you're working. A lot of people send emails to their bosses or co-workers early in the morning or late at night for the sole purpose of letting them know they're working off-hours. This is not necessarily going to get you to the top of the corporate ladder. If your boss is a workaholic, perhaps you're expected to do this. But if not, you may be perceived as having poor time management skills and a nonexistent work-life balance. Research now shows that time off improves productivity and innovation, and overwork is literally killing people, so many companies and managers are moving toward a more balanced environment.

Ongoing back-and-forth conversations. If you're going back and forth with someone to make a decision, just pick up the phone! This is a much quicker way to deal with an issue. You're saving all the people involved in the conversation (including, most importantly, yourself) time.

Complicated or sensitive matters. Email can very easily be misinterpreted and mishandled. When you need to make sure a message is conveyed clearly, set up an in-person meeting or talk on the phone. If you're trying to document an employee's illegal or inappropriate behavior in writing, that can be one thing. But you shouldn't be writing about someone's medical condition or personal life over email. That can backfire by getting sent to the wrong person, an in-house attorney or human resources and land you in serious trouble.

Another way to minimize time spent on email is to reduce the number of emails in your inbox. Set up rules to filter certain emails into folders to look at only when you have the time, and unsubscribe from lists and social media notifications that are not providing you any benefits.

If you want to figure out how much time you spend each day on certain activities, install a time tracking app on your phone or computer. Close your inbox for at least a half hour at a certain time each day, and turn your phone to silent mode to see the difference in how you spend your time. You will likely find that by shutting out distractions, you can make a lot of progress on your to-do list.

Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet, which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Marcelle holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.

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