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4 Email Mistakes That Kill Productivity


image of person typing email on keyboard

Do you spend most of your day on email? You’re in good company. For most of us, the office environment has shrunk from a social and interactive space to just one or two screens we watch all day long. That’s why email hypnotizes us—it’s always right there, and it becomes the default mode for communicating and tracking to-dos, even when it’s not the best choice.

From a lean perspective, email is chock full of waste and non-value-added tasks, keeping you from value-added knowledge work and sabotaging your job satisfaction.

But you can absolutely switch out of default mode and become more effective with your emails. The trick is to limit productivity killers for you and your coworkers.

The Source of Email Waste

Think about it: our organizational systems are set up for each person to optimize himself or herself, and for each department to optimize itself. You, your co-workers, and your bosses are incented to become organized in the hope that if everyone improves individually, then so will the whole. Sounds like a great idea! But that’s not how things end up.

Each of us is part of a system and each of our actions affects others. If you optimize yourself, many times it’s actually at the expense of the whole, particularly your co-workers and sometimes your customers. One of the ways this happens is sending fast or poorly conceived emails instead of first-time quality communication. Sending these emails clears your inbox, but it creates more work everywhere else. Hasty emails lead to confusion, frustration, and delay—and additional emails.

Most people working in offices today didn’t learn email etiquette at mama’s knee. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Generally speaking, offices suffer from a lack of accepted email protocols that are implemented company-wide.

The Goal

You should deliver any message or request in such a way that the person receiving the email  understands immediately what you need and does it in a timely fashion. Think of each email recipient as your customer—because for the purposes of that email, it’s true! To keep your customer happy, you need to limit the number of emails and increase the quality of interaction.

Of course, that’s only half the battle, because you’re just one person and everyone else needs to do the same. Use your circle of influence for good and be the example. If you’re a supervisor, you may want to encourage others overtly to follow.

Here are my top four email productivity killers and how to fight them:

Number 1: Quantity

Anytime you use email when an in-person conversation would be better—meaning anything that requires nuance—you end up with asynchronous email ping-pong, generating tons of unnecessary correspondence. Your goal shouldn’t be to get more emails done (you’re not looking for a growth strategy here) but to be more effective in using emails to limit emails. Some tips:

  • Pick up the phone or create a cadence of short meetings with people you consult often.
  • Have a short daily stand-up meeting (even virtually) in front of a WIP board.
  • Use your email rules to divert routine stuff that requires no action, like subscription emails, to folders. View those when you have time, and make sure to unsubscribe to anything you no longer want. This keeps your inbox focused on more important emails.
  • Color-code the most important email senders so you see and work their messages first.
  • Synchronize document review by meeting to edit in real time, with the document projected for the whole group, rather than individually by email.
  • Limit “Reply All” to positive messages only; try to work out disagreements with a limited number of people copied. Use blind copies only with great caution. The BCCed have a tendency to forget themselves and jump into the conversation, revealing your intentions.

Number 2: Poor Quality

Sometimes emails are too long, sometimes they’re too short, and sometimes they’re just confusing. Spend the extra minute to make sure your email is immediately actionable to your reader. It’s worth the effort!

  • Use the To: field correctly: it’s for the person who’s supposed to act.
  • Use CC: for parties who need to be aware, no action required.
  • Subject should be very clear and brief so it’s easy to see, file, and search.
  • Offer a warm greeting (Hello, Good Morning), because next part of the email is . . . .
  • BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front. Be very clear on what you want in the first sentence; then back it up with more info or bullets.
  • Do not use ALL CAPS, which is universally accepted as rude, though some people persist!
  • If the content is too complicated to edit down, start with a phone call. I’ve often received emails I can’t answer without more info, which leads to another email.
  • For emails that have emotion attached, create a draft, but don’t address it. Wait a beat. Then . . .
  • Reread all emails from the recipient’s perspective, so you won’t send an email in anger or without the attachment.
  • Use a good auto-signature with your full name, role, organization, and phone number. You can put it on just two lines to save space. No pics, philosophy, or backgrounds, please. I often receive emails from people using just their first name in the signature. I then have to look at their email address to try to figure it out. If I’m too busy, I just move on to the next email. When I’m traveling and can’t sit down and respond to your email, I’m delighted when I can just touch the telephone number in your signature to respond.

Number 3: Lack of Focus

This is better known as “cherry-picking.” We delay the most important emails by working on less important, but easier, emails. It works great to make us feel better, but only for a little while. Choosing the easiest emails and saving the tougher emails for later or tomorrow is a losing proposition.

Use a well-thought-out and coordinated strategy to prioritize emails. Otherwise you’ll get caught up in minutiae. With limited hours in a day, your strategy lies in choosing what you’re not going to do. Sometimes you have more important tasks to perform instead of emails, so use your WIP board as a reminder of your priorities. And whatever you do, shut off your email notifications so you aren’t switch-tasking, adding more stress, errors, and lead time to the email you were working on.

Number 4: Disorganization

How long does it take you to find a document you want to attach? How long does it take to find an email filed away in a folder? Organize your computer as I recommend in my post “Putting 5S to Work in the Business Office.” I use the same methodology to organize both email and computer folders.

Are You Someone’s Boss?

Employees consistently tell me about a few pet-peeve productivity killers that they wish their bosses would cut out. Are you optimizing yourself at the expense of your subordinates?

  • Do you send so many emails delegating tasks that you overwhelm your employees?
  • Do you ever address too many people in the To: field so that no one person is accountable for action?
  • Do you send long threads and write “See below” without providing a focus?
  • Do you forward your subordinates emails when they were already on the distribution list?

Enough said.

If you adopt the protocols I’ve outlined above you’ll increase your daily productivity—maybe even go home at the end of an eight-hour day! You may not be able to change everybody’s behavior immediately, but you can be the example that starts the dominoes falling. Forward this blog post to your team and get them talking about their email pet peeves—and how to nip bad habits once and for all.

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