Email is meant to save you time. It’s a much better way of sending formal and informal communication than phone calls, SMS and of course, snail mail. It’s fast, convenient and usually straight to the point. If you manage your inbox effectively, it also helps you keep track of historical correspondence for quick reference.
Then, why is it that email is the one thing that’s keeping you from being productive?
Fortunately, it’s not just you if you’re struggling to keep a tidy inbox. Email overload is a frustration many private practice owners share. It’s not surprising since, depending on the size of the practice, owners can receive dozens of emails in a day. And without a system to manage your inbox effectively, it can quickly get out of hand.
Impact on productivity
Before we go onto the strategies to help you manage your inbox effectively, let’s first look at the impact of the failure to do so on your (and your team’s) productivity.
A 2012 report by McKinsey Global Institute revealed that 28% of an average work week was being spent on reading and answering emails. It was the second-most time-consuming activity after role-specific tasks (39%).
Similar results were found by Carleton University researchers in Canada, showing that people spend a third of their work time reading and answering emails.
A case study of Danwood Group employees showed that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover from an email interruption to return to work “at the same work rate at which they left it.”
Email overload can also affect your stress levels in addition to decreasing productivity. If you need more evidence that effective inbox management is a priority for creating an efficient workplace, just take a look at this list of available resources put together by the Information Overload Research Group.
How to manage your inbox effectively
Now that we all understand just how important it is to manage your inbox effectively, let’s take a look at some strategies you can implement in your private practice right now.
#1. Set aside dedicated email-checking time.
First, see if you’re doing any (or all) of the below:
- Your email program is open all day.
- You switch tabs multiple times in an hour to check your inbox.
- Your work email is connected to your personal phone and notification is enabled.
- Your office door is open and you often have colleagues coming in minutes after sending you an email to say “Hey, I just sent you an email…”
If any of the above resonates with you, it’s time to make some changes to your daily routine.
Set aside some time everyday to dedicate to sending and answering emails. The best times to set aside in order to manage your inbox effectively will depend on your work schedule, type and email volume.
Twice a day
The twice-a-day rule is recommended and exercised by many busy and organised professionals.
This means setting specific times aside each day and sticking to it. For example, you could check your emails at 8AM and 3PM, and limit yourself to an hour each time. If you receive a high volume of emails each day, you could consider setting up an automatic reply that lets your colleagues know when their email will be read:
“Due to increased workload, I am currently checking emails twice a day – at 8AM and 3PM AEST. If your matter is truly urgent, please call me on XXXX XXX XXX.”
This tactic has also been suggested by Tim Ferris, and you can read his auto-response emails here. While I don’t personally agree with his example of checking his emails only once a week, the auto-response strategy, when used appropriately, can save you plenty of time and headaches.
Once an hour
Depending on the type of work, some things just can’t wait until your email window twice a day. However, just because your workflow can’t survive with two strict times in a day, it doesn’t mean you can’t manage your inbox effectively. If you don’t have the luxury of sticking to the twice-a-day rule, set aside a few minutes each hour to dedicate to your inbox.
This is a habit I have incorporated into my work day. People who take more frequent breaks while studying (or working) have higher productivity by avoiding burnout and essentially recharging. Studies show that taking a break around every 50 minutes is optimal.
So, on an average work day, I would get into “intense mode” for 45 minutes at a time. Then, for 10 minutes, I would check, send and respond to emails. For the remaining 5 minutes of the hour, I would take a bathroom break, grab myself some water or stretch my legs.
This email-checking system works wonders for me for two reasons.
- The nature of the emails I receive can generally be quickly responded to.
- The fact that the cycle resets every hour helps me to refocus quickly each time.
For private practice owners who work with clients on top of doing business tasks, the once-an-hour tactic can be used during long stretches of admin work (and not during back-to-back client appointments).
#2. Provide resources in your auto-response.
In the previous point, we touched on using your email agent’s auto-response function to inform your colleagues about your email checking times. This would not work well with private practice owners who often use the same email address to communicate with clients.
In fact, some people just aren’t a fan of auto-responses at all. Generally, the sentiment is that auto-responses feel impersonal, customer service-y or quite simply arrogant.
That doesn’t mean that auto-responses are a no go for private practice owners that want to add a personal feel to their communications. In reality, auto-responses could well increase productivity and positively contribute to client service. It just depends on how you use it!
Instead of simply saying “I’m unavailable at…” or “I only check emails at…”, provide useful information. The number one way to increase customer engagement is to provide value. So why not give them (or your colleagues) something to work with?
Provide a list of FAQs.
Do you get the same type of questions on a regular basis? One way to quickly provide answers to your senders is to include them in your auto-responses. That way, instead of waiting for you to check and formulate a response to the email, your clients or team members can receive immediate answers.
Here is an example of how you can utilise this:
“Thank you for your email! I will respond to you as soon as possible.
In the meantime, below are some of our frequently asked questions in case you’re wanting a quick answer to any of the below.
- Do I need a referral from a GP to make an appointment?
Provide links to useful resources.
Another way to utilise auto-responses to manage your inbox effectively is to provide links to resources on your website. (Hint: If you receive similar enquiries daily, consider creating a web page that respond to those questions.)
An example of this might be something like this:
Thanks for getting in touch with us.
Before we can respond to your message, we thought you might be interested in some of the information we put together to help you get more out of our services.
- List of frequently asked questions
- Book an appointment online
- Fill out the new client intake form
If used well, these auto-responses can increase your productivity by reducing the amount of time spent on working on formulating a great response. Sometimes, your clients or team members will send a follow-up “don’t worry about it” email to let you know that their issues were resolved with your auto-response. Even if they don’t, you can approach the email with a degree of confidence that they were given detailed information to work with.
#3. Create email templates.
Following on from the previous point, you can also create email templates to help manage your inbox effectively. Even if you use auto-responses, chances are you’ll still respond to all of the emails from your clients. Then, save yourself a lot of time by creating email templates based on different topics.
Below are 3 types of templates I recommend.
Templates based on your FAQs
Even if you have a support page on your website with this information, create an email template for your frequently asked questions. Replace your placeholders with information specific to the email, and voila! You’ve just saved yourself 10 minutes of writing, formatting and proofreading.
Appointment scheduling and confirming templates
How time-consuming is it to schedule a meeting or an appointment with someone via email? Having to write the email then going back and forth to confirm the date, time and location from your calendar… Save yourself the trouble by having a go-to response! Create a template for scheduling an event or an appointment, one for accepting appointments, another for confirming and reminding about upcoming events.
Not all emails are about actions. Sometimes, you just want to do the basic courtesy of getting back to a colleague or a supplier to show your gratitude. If your work requires a lot of communication of this type, create a thank-you template. It should leave some room for a personal touch (like a personalised greeting or a sentence or two about their specific circumstances).
#4. Get rid of spam and unsubscribe to marketing emails.
Unlike the above points, the simplest strategy you can implement right now is getting rid of emails you never look at. Marketing emails and newsletters can really add value to your day if they’re educational, but they mean nothing if you don’t read them.
If you find that you’re always filtering through tens of emails each day to find the non-commercial ones, it’s time you organise your subscriptions. Every time you see spam or marketing emails coming through that you don’t read, open the email, scroll down and click “Unsubscribe” in the footer. Do this a few times and soon you’ll start to notice the clutter disappear from your inbox.
If you’d like to continue receiving marketing emails, filter your incoming emails by sender and put them in a separate folder. In this folder, put any emails that you don’t need to respond to. Once this has been organised, set yourself a limited time each week to go through them.
#5. Prioritise and organise your emails.
As mentioned in the point above, using folders is one of the best methods to manage your inbox effectively. Organise your incoming emails by putting them into the right folders, so that you only have to click into the folder to see all emails related to the topic.
There are a few different ways to do this depending on your needs.
Automatically filter by sender.
Like you can filter marketing emails into their own folder, you can do this with specific people. For example, create a folder for each of the below sender categories:
- Virtual assistants
- Online email enquiries (from your website)
- Marketing agency
- Business consultant
Automatically filter by recipient.
Generally speaking, you don’t need to respond to emails you were CC’d into. As such, they’re not a priority. To separate emails that you were copied in, from emails for which you were the primary recipient, filter them to automatically go into a separate “CC” or “BCC” folder.
Manually filter by project.
If you’re currently working on several projects, separate your emails by project. For example, you may be working on re-doing your website, growth strategies, or moving premises. Simply drag and drop the email into its project-specific folder (that you created) as they come in.
Manually filter by deadline.
If you like to work on a timeline basis, create separate folders based on due dates. For example, create “due tomorrow”, “due in a week”, “due in a month” and “ongoing projects” folders. Simply drag and drop the incoming emails into their corresponding folders. Then, you’ll be able to work through each folder based on urgency.
#6. Follow the 2-minute rule.
This is a really simple one. If it takes less than 2 minutes to do, do it immediately.
Don’t let the email sit in your inbox and stress you out for the next few hours. Just get it done, reply and archive it! This will drastically improve your productivity as well as keep your unread emails to a minimum.
#7. Change the culture in your practice.
For private practices with a large team, managing emails might need a deeper intervention. If you struggle to manage your inbox effectively, and notice the same in your team members, set a meeting to consider the best communication methods for the team.
Involve all members of your team and ask about their productivity challenges arising from too many emails. From there, you can have an open conversation about the changes needed in your practice’s email culture.
This would generally involve setting boundaries for your team and following your communication guidelines.
Some rules to consider are as follows:
Include the Five Ws and How in the email.
By always remembering to include the who, what, where, when, why and how, email communications can be reduced to a minimum instead of the usual back-and-forth.
Use the “high priority” tag or the word “urgent” sparingly.
Not all emails marked as urgent are actually urgent. The recipient is likely to drop everything to attend to urgent emails, which can affect their workflow and waste time especially if it wasn’t urgent at all. Give your team some guidelines on what can be considered urgent.
Think twice before hitting “reply all”.
Just because 5 people were included in the initial email, doesn’t mean that they all need to be responded to. If not everyone can benefit from seeing the response, don’t include them.
Write clear and concise subject lines.
Suggest a clear format for your team that helps to convey the message without reading the whole email. This can help with manually organising emails into different folders. For example, include a deadline in the subject: “[Due 3 days] Please send me FY18/19 one-page marketing plan”.
With some rules in place and by choosing the right strategy that works for you, you can start to manage your inbox effectively in no time. Putting these tactics in place might take some time initially. But every time you start to feel bored of it, remind yourself of the statistic that 28% of an average work week is spent on emails. Rise above the time-consuming daily tasks to create productive work habits!