One of my resolutions this year was to be more efficient at work, and that involved taking a step back and looking at my entire work picture in a completely different light. I've done this before, and each time I've found it is essential to take everything apart from the ground up in order to be effective.
It turned out that email was the single biggest detriment to my productivity, by a huge margin.
Email led to inefficiency (breaking my concentration when a new message appeared), incomplete work product (dashing off quick notes that, upon later review, led to an unnecessary number of responses to clarify the initial message), and a general feeling of unease throughout the day (checking frequently while waiting for a reply to appear).
So, here are 3 tips I've been using to be more efficient with email. I'm happy to report that they really do work if you are willing to employ them and not slip back into your old habits at crunch time:
1. Turn off email. Schedule 3-4 times per day to check your inbox, and stick to it religiously. The rest of the time, shut it down so it is not there as a distraction to your wandering eye. I check email at 6am, 10am, 3pm, and 9pm, and pound out all the emails I need to send or reply to in under 45 minutes per session.
2. Write short emails. I make all my emails 3 sentences or less; it forces me to think hard about what I want to say in the least amount of words. Anything longer? Pick up the phone and call the person.
3. BLUF - Bottom Line Up Front. Take a page from military correspondence, which has to be short, sweet and to the point. It's a key part of #2 above - say what you want to say right up front. Your audience will appreciate your emails and you will get much better (and faster) responses.
What's a good email template look like?
[First sentence: what you want to happen as a result of the email]
[Second sentence: the issue at hand]
[Third sentence: the deadline for completion]
I need to know if the widget project will be completed by Friday.
Our biggest customer, Mega-corporation Inc., has a tight deadline for their integration of our widget. Please let me know by 4pm today if we are on schedule or if we are in jeopardy of missing the Friday deliverable so I can let them know. Thanks."
Incidentally, I find it is extremely helpful to your readers to have a paragraph break separating the first, and most important, point from the other two sentences. Most email readers are time-starved and overtaxed, so the joy of seeing a simple, one-line email request usually leads to an immediate response - voila, you have made your email more efficient!