5 ways to boost your e-mail productivity

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Last December, productivity blog Lifehacker polled its readers to determine their preferred tool for online collaboration. In an age of wikis, social networks, and Google Wave, it may surprise you that the early adopter-types who read Lifehacker chose e-mail as their favorite collaboration tool. The possible reason for this is that we’re all pretty familiar with how to use e-mail, whereas newer tools have learning curves we haven’t all tackled (yet). E-mail, though, can become an impediment to productivity if you let it. Here are five good ways to get your inbox in order and reclaim some of that time you use sending and receiving e-mail:

1. Achieve Inbox Zero

How many messages are in your inbox right now? Unless your answer is “none, Aaron!” then you have too many. Inbox Zero is a method created by productivity guru Merlin Mann to cut through e-mail clutter via the four D’s–delete, do, defer, delegate. For a few details, check out Amber’s post about Inbox Zero from last summer. Once you’ve cleaned house, make sure to pick up your nerd merit badge!

2. Use subject line rules

Sadly, searching for e-mail subject writing rules will return primarily tips on spamming marketing to consumers via e-mail. There are some good tips out there, though, such as these four ways good subject lines will make you more productive (basically, make them specific, accessible, and relevant); some more tips on good subject lines (concise, summarizing, “don’t tease”); and even some e-mail subject line protocols to really get productive.

3. Ditch the attachments

I hate e-mail attachments. The disk quota on my work e-mail account is quite low compared to what I’d get if I used Gmail or some other free mail service. A large PowerPoint file or video clip can lock down my e-mail account. Be considerate when sending attachments, especially large ones. Online services like Dropbox make it easy to safely share files via web links instead of attaching them to your messages.

4. Shut it off!

Whenever your computer pings or pops up a notification that new mail has arrived, what do you do? You probably drop what you’re doing, go over to your e-mail program, and see what’s new. If you don’t, you’re probably thinking about it. That’s distracting. My solution to this, especially when I’m working on something that needs my concentration, is close my e-mail program completely. I fire it up every few hours to check on incoming messages, process them as necessary, and then shut it back down.

I know that might sound drastic, especially if you’re addicted to e-mail. But give it a try. At the very least, shut off the bleeps and bloops and pop-up window notifications drawing your attention from your task at hand to your inbox.

5. Express yourself (clearly)

Last month, WebWorkerDaily published five ways to express yourself more clearly online. Clearer expression makes you a better communicator makes you more productive, because you’re not having to re-explain yourself.

What are your tips for getting the most out of e-mail? Share them in a comment below. See you next week!

Photo: S Migol on Flickr

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Aaron Sumner

Aaron Sumner is the Director of Technology for Research and Development at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has worked in web development and instructional technology since 1994.