Is there a small-business owner among us who hasn’t started a day with the best intentions, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, only to emerge from behind our computers 10 hours later completely drained, dazed and wondering, “What did I do all day?” Answer email, most likely.
Email isn’t all bad. But there are good ways, and bad ways, to use email. Here are five email habits that could be destroying your productivity.
Keeping your email alerts on. Does your computer ping or ding, or your phone flash or beep, every time you get email? Like Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of the bell, you probably respond by dropping whatever you’re doing to check your email. Our brains are wired to respond to new stimuli, so we can’t resist stepping away from boring tasks (like writing that important proposal) to see what new shiny toy email might bring. But according to a case study by Loughborough University, it takes an average of 64 seconds to fully recover each time we’re interrupted by an email. Multiply that by how often you check your email each day, and we’re talking hours of wasted time. Unless your business absolutely requires instantaneous response (like you deliver organs to hospitals for transplant patients, in which case, shouldn’t people be texting you instead?), turn off notifications.
Defaulting to email. Email’s great for some things, but not so great for others. If you’ve ever been trapped in a 75-message-chain among 12 people trying to schedule a meeting, you know what I mean. Many of us are in the habit of using email for everything—even when it’s easier to just shout to the person sitting right outside our office door, pick up the phone or walk down the hall. By the same token, if you find yourself typing a War and Peace-length email, it might be best to schedule a phone call or in-person meeting instead.
Replying immediately. Email creates a false sense of urgency that can lead us to send quick responses we later regret. Sometimes you need time to think before composing a reply. If you’re worried people will think you didn’t get their email or that you’re ignoring them, send a quick email to let them know you received their message, and tell them when they can expect a more detailed response. (“Thank you for thinking of me. I’ll look at this in more detail with my team and get back to you with a proposal by Friday morning.”) This gives you time to gather the necessary data and think things through so you don’t commit to events you really don’t want to attend or bid too low on a project without thinking through all the elements involved.
Starting your day with email. In my world, a quick morning email check can easily devolve into three time-sucking hours. If you’re worried about missing crucial messages, try what one of my ultra-efficient colleagues does. She uses one email account for business, another for personal stuff and a third for non-essential messages like email newsletters. The first two accounts go to her smartphone and each morning, she quickly checks her phone and responds to emergencies only. All the other emails can wait (out of sight, out of mind). Get a few core tasks out of the way in the morning when your energy is high, before checking your email for a set time. (Set a timer if you must.) Limiting email to set times each day enables you to focus—not only on other tasks, but also on email itself when you do get to it. Which leads to the next mistake …
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Multitasking while you’re emailing. Ever sent an email complaining about someone to the very person you’re complaining about? Accidentally “replied all” to something you only meant to send to one person? Mistakenly emailed an internal document to a prospect (maybe the document with confidential information about your prices)? All of these possibly business-busting mistakes, and more, can happen when you’re distracted by multitasking. Taking the time to focus on what you’re doing, spell check your emails, and double check any attachments and the “To,” “CC” and “BCC” fields will save you time (and embarrassment) in the long run.
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