14 Clever Email Hacks for Productivity and Efficiency

Julia Millay Walsh

For many of us, sending and replying to emails feels like all we do at work—and even all we do after work hours. Given that the majority of emails we use are not urgent or even valuable, it's essential to our productivity and efficiency that we detox from inboxes and learn to free ourselves up for activities that are a more effective use of our time. It requires a concentrated effort and can take months to be able to truly step away from the inbox, but it can be done. Read below for some genius hacks that will help you through it.

  • Turn off all email notifications from social networking sites and apps. They’re rarely urgent and almost always an interruption of your time.

  • Bulk your bacn. Pronounced “bacon,” bacn is solicited email that you’ve subscribed to—such as email marketing, notifications, newsletters, and mailing lists—that’s better than spam but not as good as personal email. Some of it may be interesting or relevant to you, but it certainly doesn’t deserve to interrupt your time, so bulk these messages into a separate folder, such as with Gmail’s Promotions tab, and look at them once a day or less frequently.

  • Get Followup.cc. One of the best tools for productivity, this incredible Chrome plug-in allows you to set email follow-up reminders directly in email, so you don’t have to worry about an important date or task (i.e., all those times you say, “I’ll circle back with you next week”). It also allows you to track who’s opening your emails when and who hasn’t followed up with you, and it turns written plans ("Let’s get lunch this Friday") into actual calendar reminders.

  • Don’t unsubscribe from spam or suspicious emails. By unsubscribing to email, you’re confirming to spammers that you have an active one. When they send spam, they’re essentially guessing email addresses, but now that you’ve unsubscribed, they now know they have “a live one” and will inundate you with email.

  • Scan your inbox each morning for urgent emails, and then move on to more important tasks. Your brain’s optimum time for thinking and planning is in the morning, so it’s not wise to expend this precious time reading junk email.

  • Apply the 80-20 principle to your inbox. This time-management principle, which Tim Ferriss cheerleads in his book The Four-Hour Workweek, advises that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts, so we should focus only on the tasks that contribute the majority of results. Applying that rule to your inbox, you should only check email two or three times a day (say 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., or 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m.). When you do, sprint through it in 10 to 15 minutes, deleting things that aren’t useful to you, archiving things you might want later, and putting things you want to reply to in a “reply to” folder. Think your boss won’t go for it? Send an email out to everyone in your division letting them know your new routine and your thinking behind it, and make sure you’re still accessible by phone when needed.

  • Don’t accommodate a global work schedule. If you’re answering emails after hours from colleagues or clients in different time zones, you’re not living up to that 80-20 principle. Unless you’re handling an urgent matter, only reply to emails during work hours to increase your productivity and efficiency.

  • Be bold. In this low–attention span age, most of us are accustomed to scanning emails. If you want recipients to take action on a particular point in your email, bold it—in moderation of course. This suggests the point's importance and ensures they don’t scroll over it.

  • Set up templates. Gmail calls them canned responses, in Outlook they’re called email signatures, and in Yahoo Mail they’re templates. If you find yourself sending the same responses to emails over and over for anything—be it quickly saying “Great, looking forward to it!”, declining invitations, or replying to inquiries of any sort—automate them. Most email providers have a template that you can use for any messages you regularly send, which will save you lots of time.

  • As soon as you get a new contact or business card, add the information to your address book. This way you won’t waste time later on looking for the contact's email address and other details when you need them.

  • Don’t add email addresses to your draft until you’ve written the body. This will prevent accidentally sending emails prematurely and having to waste time on the follow-up backtracking.

  • Resist the urge to reply when you're CC'd. If senders CC you on an email, chances are they only want you to be aware of a discussion; they don’t need a response from you. Unless you have a vested interest in sending a response, keep mum and save yourself some time.

  • Set up undo-sends. There will come a time when you accidentally send an email to the wrong person or group, or when you send an email when it’s not ready to be sent. If you’re using Gmail, set up the Undo Send lab, and the next time you say “Oops!”, you’ll be able to unsend it within a few seconds.

  • If you use Gmail, create unique email addresses within one account for different purposes. This Gmail trick is super valuable if you give your email address out to multiple groups of people (clients, potential partners, networking contacts, etc.). Say, for instance, you want your Twitter followers to be able to contact you, but you don’t want to give them your real email address, just use a plus sign next to the @ in your Gmail address—i.e. MyDomaine+Twitter@Gmail.com—and then you can set up an auto-filter for any emails that come to that address to go into a different folder, rather than your main inbox.


Interested in learning more workplace productivity tips like this? Pick up a copy of organising expert Julie Morgenstern's book Never Check Email in the Morning ($14).

Any other email hacks to add to this list? Tell us in the comments.

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