If you’ve ever done research to try and improve your productivity, you’ve probably ended up in an infinite loop of tips about how you shouldn’t check Facebook so often, or how you should exercise in the morning before starting work. These tips can be beneficial, helping you focus throughout the day and avoid minutes-long distractions that could otherwise eat up your time.
But there’s another way to look at productivity, and it has everything to do with how you’re carrying out your daily responsibilities. Almost everything you do in a day can be optimized to be more efficient, from how you arrange meetings to how you do research. But one of the most important areas of optimization is a frequently overlooked one—your email.
The average American worker spends 6.3 hours every day checking email, resulting in 122 emails sent. Email is closely linked to every other responsibility you have, and it’s the most universal communication medium in the modern professional world. Accordingly, even small changes to your habits can have drastic effects; imagine spending just 1 minute less on every email you send or receive—you could end up adding an extra 2 hours to your day!
The Analytics Problem
So why aren’t more people spending time understanding and optimizing their email habits? The biggest problem here is that they don’t know where to start. They’re so used to their own individual emailing habits, it’s hard for them to conceptualize anything different. But with the right analytics tools in place, and the desire to use them effectively, it’s possible for any worker to instantly boost their productivity.
EmailAnalytics is one of the only email analytics platforms available that’s capable of crunching the numbers on your most important email productivity stats. Once you have your hands on those numbers, you can take meaningful action to improve your habits—and possibly shave hours off your email time every week. So what are the most important stats to look at to figure out your email productivity score, and how can you use them to improve your productivity?
1. Total Emails Sent and Received
What It Is This is one of the most basic email metrics you can measure, but it’s also one of the most telling. At a glance, these figures will tell you how many emails you’ve sent versus how many you’ve received. It’s not a complicated metric, either; it means what you think it means. Every email that hits your inbox is an email “received,” and every email in your Sent folder is an email “sent.” Why It’s Important Sent and received metrics are important because they reveal how frequently you’re emailing and being emailed, both of which can diagnose potential problems with your workload, your approach to email, and the types of people you work with. It’s also a high-level metric, giving you an overall snapshot of how you work. Warning Signs These are some of the most important warning signs to watch for when monitoring your sent and received emails:
- Overall high volume. Your overall volume can only be accurately assessed if you’re comparing it to other people—that may include comparisons to other people in your position at your company, or to generalized stats. Either way, if you notice that your overall email volume—including both your “sent” and “received” totals—is too high, it could be a sign that you’re currently dealing with too many tasks and responsibilities.This, in turn, costs you even more time—since you’ll be forced to deal with increased email volume in addition to spending time on the tasks that created them.
- Overall low volume. On the other hand, if your email volume is too low, it could be a sign that you aren’t contributing as much as you could to the company—or that you aren’t communicating readily or regularly with the rest of your team. Either way, it could cause the average productivity of your team to drop.
- More sent than received. Instead of a volumetric issue, you may be dealing with a balance issue. For example, if you have far more sent emails than received emails, it could be a sign that you’re spending too much time drafting and sending emails that don’t warrant responses, or that you’re over-communicating in general.
- More received than sent. Conversely, if you have more received emails than sent emails, it could mean that you aren’t responding as efficiently as you should, or that people are emailing you too frequently with items that don’t warrant responses. It could also be a sign that you’re subscribed to too many lists or notification systems.
How to Improve So what can you do to improve?
- Rebalance your workload. If your email volume is too high or too low, the only real solution is to rebalance your workload. You can accomplish this through delegation, requesting more or fewer responsibilities from your superiors, or simply changing the type and amount of work you take on firsthand.
- Unsubscribe and manage your notifications. Next, if you’re receiving more emails than you’re sending, unsubscribe from any recurring emails you get that don’t have an immediate impact on your work. If you receive notifications from things like project management platforms or social media sites, consider whittling them down to the bare minimum.
- Reevaluate your messaging criteria. If you’re sending more emails than you’re receiving, reevaluate your criteria for sending a message. Is it really vital that your team receive this update? Did that message you received really warrant a response?
Over time, you’ll start seeing your totals incrementally shift to more acceptable levels.
2. Total Emails in Various Categories
What It Is With this metric, you’ll learn how many emails you have sitting in multiple different categories, including your primary inbox, your sent messages, spam messages, trashed messages, messages starred as important, and messages in various categories (including those you’ve created). Why It’s Important This metric is important because it gives you a snapshot of how well organized your inbox is, and whether you have any habits that interfere with your ability to manage email as productively as possible. This is one of the broadest metrics to measure, since there are so many categories to look at, but that also means it’s one of the richest in information. Warning Signs These are some of the biggest indications that your email management and organization needs work:
- High spam counts. If you have a high number of emails in your spam folder, it could be a result of subscribing to too many email newsletters. It may also mean you don’t enter your spam folder often enough to weed out recurring messages that clog up your servers and/or storage space.
- Low trash counts. It might seem like a good thing that your trash counts are low, but it actually indicates that you have a problem discarding messages that are no longer useful to you. If something isn’t presently necessary, and doesn’t hold foreseeable recurring value, it can probably be deleted; otherwise, it’s just going to get in the way of your other messages.
- High inbox counts. By that same token, if you have too many messages floating in your inbox—especially unread ones—it could be a sign that you aren’t actively managing your inbox. Some people prefer this method, relying on search functions to find what they’re looking for, and allowing their inbox counts to grow to the tens of thousands, but it’s almost always better to keep your inbox as clean as possible.
- Few categorized emails. Labels, including the “star” function, are your greatest tool in managing your inbox and keeping it clean. It’s a good way to save your emails efficiently when you don’t want to delete them, and offers you a quick way to find the messages you need if and when you need them. If you don’t have many (or any) labeled messages, it could be a sign of inefficient or nonexistent organization.
How to Improve What can you do to improve?
- Devise a labeling system. If you don’t already have one, you’ll want to create a labeling system. It doesn’t need to follow any specific standards, but it should help you easily arrange, sort, and categorize most of the emails you receive on a daily basis.
- Start deleting unnecessary emails. If your inbox is overstuffed, you may or may not want to comb through and delete your existing emails. Either way, make it a point to delete any emails you get from this point forward that aren’t explicitly necessary to keep on-hand.
- Browse your spam folder on occasion. If you’re like most workers, your spam folder exists in the background—it’s something you check only when you’re expecting a specific email but haven’t yet received it. If your spam counts are high, however, you’ll want to change your habits by occasionally browsing those spam messages, checking for any inappropriately sorted messages or subscriptions you can remove yourself from.
Improvement here takes more work than some of the other categories. There aren’t any shortcuts or quick fixes; instead, this requires an organizational change.
3. Top Senders and Recipients
What It Is Next on the list are the “top senders” and “top recipients” metrics, which I’m listing here as a set because of how closely related they are. Your top senders are the people who email you the most frequently. Your top recipients are the people who you email the most frequently. Why It’s Important These metrics are important because they help you see who demands your attention the most, and who seems to occupy most of your time. In some cases, these relationships will make sense; for example, you probably email your boss more than you email people in departments unrelated to yours. However, the real value here is in the outliers—the senders and recipients who stand out from the others. Warning Signs Here, you’ll want to watch out for any unexpectedly high or low figures:
- High-volume internal senders. Watch out for people within your company who send you too many emails; they may mean well, but they’re probably overloading you with unnecessary information and questions. Obviously, some employees have more important things to say—especially if you’re working on projects together—so use your best judgment here.
- Disproportionately high senders and recipients. Also be on the lookout for any contacts you have who show up as disproportionately high on both your senders and recipients lists. These are people who demand the most time from you, and are therefore your biggest productivity vulnerabilities. They could be clients who demand too frequent communication, or supervisors whose conversations occupy the bulk of your day. Either way, there’s much significance here.
- Unexpectedly low senders. Take note of any senders who you’d expect to send high volumes, but who aren’t matching those expectations. For example, you might suspect that your intern or assistant sends you many emails a day; if those figures are off, it could represent a gap in communication, or an abnormally low workload.
- Mismatched senders and recipients. Finally, look for sharp mismatches between rankings in senders and recipients. For example, if your top recipient doesn’t even appear on your “top 10” senders list, it could be a sign that you’re emailing them too frequently.
How to Improve Most of the productivity issues in this section stem from your relationships with other emailers, so there are only two ways to address issues here. If you appear to be the source of the problem, you can course correct through introspection and reevaluation; for example, if you appear to send too many emails to one specific contact, work on sending them more concise, appropriate, and relevant emails. If your problem appears to lie with external contacts, your first step is to have a conversation with them. Let them know, specifically, why you believe they’re emailing you too much (or not enough), and ask what you can to do make the relationship more productive for both of you. For clients, this may include creating weekly email chains instead of daily back-and-forth messages. For other employees, this may include establishing formal instructions on how to properly format and draft emails.
4. Day of the Week, Hourly, Daily, and Weekly Traffic Breakdown
What It Is These metrics, again bundled because of how closely related they are, measure how your email volume changes from hour to hour, day to day, and week to week. It allows you to see changes in frequency over time. Why It’s Important Understanding how your workflow and email habits change is important because you may be unwittingly making your job harder than it has to be (by overloading yourself on certain days and underloading yourself on others). This may also help you understand the natural ebb and flow of email within your organization, and allow you to make better accommodations to handle those peaks and valleys. Warning Signs There are some general trends you’ll see in almost everyone’s email patterns; for example, Saturdays and Sundays are universally slow email days, and email times increase in the morning hours before lunch, once people get settled. You’ll also see random fluctuations, no matter how steady your workflow seems to be. There are some warning signs to note, however:
- Unnatural highs and lows. Does your email inbox explode at 3 pm every day? Do you notice that Thursdays are always practically void of communication? You might see these as natural and temporary fluctuations, but if it’s consistently occurring at a certain time of day or day of the week, it could indicate a problem. It means your workload is off balance in some way.
- Aberrant or unidentifiable patterns. It’s almost more dangerous if you can’t identify any patterns whatsoever. If you see lots of peaks and valleys, with no connective tissue to explain their extreme occurrences, it means you have little to no control over your current email loads. For some positions, that’s the nature of the job, but for others, that indicates a lack of organization and initiative.
- Excessive consistency. The perfectionist in you might be pleased to see even incoming and outgoing messages throughout each day and throughout the week, but this is problematic too. It means you’re constantly hovering over your email, which means you’re getting distracted from your other work.
How to Improve So what can you do about these problems?
- Restructure your workload. If you can, try to rearrange your schedule. For example, if Tuesday ends up overwhelmed with work because your Monday is chock-full of meetings, try to move some of those meetings to later in the week.
- Formalize some of your communication. If you have emails coming in and going out somewhat unpredictably, try to centralize those messages by establishing regular weekly update emails, or by coordinating your efforts to take place around the same day and time.
- Designate “off” periods. Finally, make sure you designate some official “off” periods where you stop checking your email altogether and focus on other work. All those incoming emails can wait until you’re back online—and you’ll get far more done in the meantime, since you won’t be distracted with reading and responding.
You have significant control over how you send emails, but not necessarily how you receive them, so these tactics should focus on your own emailing habits.
5. Conversation Length
What It Is Conversations, often referred to as “email threads,” are chains of emails between users (sometimes groups of users) that unfold over the course of hours, days, or even longer. Conversation length, specifically, refers to the number of emails that are included in each “conversation,” so if the pattern goes original-response-response-response-conclusion, that email chain would consist of five total messages. Why It’s Important The total number of emails per conversation indicates the value, brevity, and depth of the conversation, all at once. When viewed with various sub-filters and complicating variables, it can be used to determine whether your conversations are too long, too short, or just right—as well as whether the right number of people are contributing. Warning Signs Warning signs are more ambiguous here than in other metrics, mostly because what works for one conversation may not work for another. For example, for some email chains, five emails may be too many—the point was made clear in the first email, and the other four responses were unnecessary. For others, five emails may be too short—you may not reach the natural end of the conversation, and may be left with unanswered questions. Still, you can look for these warning signs:
- Egregiously high conversation lengths. There are some cases where short conversation threads are perfectly acceptable. For example: “Are we still on to hit the Friday deadline?” “Absolutely. I’ll let you know if we hit any issues.” (Arguably, this should have been handled over chat/text, but it still works). However, there are almost no circumstances in which an email thread of 10 messages or more is acceptable. At this point, the conversation should be finished, or broken off into new conversations. Threads with too many messages make it harder for participants to find the information they’re looking for—and they clog up inboxes, too.
- Scattered conversation lengths. Short conversations aren’t necessarily a problem, but if your conversation lengths are all over the place, it’s an indication of both inconsistency and lack of organization. Your team isn’t doing a good job of conversing in predictable, organized ways, and that’s interfering with your ability to communicate effectively and/or get work done.
How to Improve Much of your success here depends on the people you’re emailing with; after all, for a conversation to unfold, it requires at least one other participant. If there’s a general problem with length, your best bet is to reset expectations for conversational flow, possibly holding a meeting or providing resources to your teammates that explain how email threads should be used. There may also be a specific problem with your conversations, related to a specific person or group of people—but to understand those issues, we’ll need to dive deeper into the “conversation” metric.
6. Time Spent Reading
What It Is This is an intuitive metric, but it probably holds information that will surprise you. Time spent reading measures how long it takes you to “read” the messages in your inbox, tracking how long you keep the message open before you respond or switch to another task. Why It’s Important There are two major time components to email: reading and writing. Most of the metrics we’ve covered thus far have indirectly measured productivity, by highlighting specific examples of lost or misspent time. This measurement tells you exactly how long you spend reading emails, but won’t tell you why you’re spending a particularly long or short amount of time. When used in combination with the other metrics (and improvements you make for each one), you can observe how your reading time decreases. Warning Signs Since reading time is such a broad metric, the only real warning sign is spending too long reading emails. “Too long” is an ambiguous statement, of course, because what’s too long for one person may be relatively short to another. Still, with ongoing effort, you can probably reduce your reading time, which will reduce the total time you spend on email. How to Improve Your improvement in this area depends on the root cause of your excessive reading. It usually comes down to one of these factors:
- Slow reading. You might have high reading times simply because you’re a slow reader. You might spend too much time on the details of the message, rather than absorbing the content of the message as a whole (which is what speed readers often do). You might also find yourself distracted in the middle of a message, preventing you from reading it directly and efficiently. In any case, slow reading is a problem you can diagnose and fix for yourself.
- Bulky messages. Your slow reading might also be due to bulky, poorly written messages. If your coworkers and clients have a habit of emailing you huge chunks of information at a time, or if that information is lumped together without subsections, bullet points, or numbered lists to help you read it, you’re going to spend longer than necessary digesting that information. Here, your best bet for improvement is talking to the people responsible for these messages one-on-one, and asking them to follow tighter standards for drafting emails.
- Unproductive messages. You may also take a longer time reading if your coworkers are sending messages unproductively, such as sending them to the wrong targets, or making any of the errors mentioned in the previous sections.
Your goal shouldn’t be to read emails as fast as possible—otherwise, you’ll miss key details—but shorter reading times are a sign that you’re moving in the right direction.
7. Time Spent Writing
What It Is The sister metric to time spent reading, time spent writing measures how long it takes you to write an average message, counting time from the moment you open up an email draft to the moment you hit send (pausing if you save your draft to work on it at a later time). Why It’s Important Like time spent reading, your time spent writing is a direct metric, and an inarguable one. It tells you exactly how much of your day you’re spending on email drafts—which is time you don’t often consciously consider. If you spend even a few extra minutes on each email draft, it could wind up costing you hours of time. Warning Signs Again, the only real warning sign is spending too much time writing your emails. This may be influenced by the complexity of the topics you’re trying to communicate, but for the most part, this is entirely under your control, and there’s always room for improvement. How to Improve How can you improve your time spent writing?
- Organize your thoughts. Before you start writing an email, take a moment to think through what you want to say. Too many people immediately click “Compose” when a thought flashes through their mind; instead, it’s better to wait until you know exactly what you want to say. Instead of hashing out your thoughts in an email draft, you can nail down your core concept before you even start typing.
- Start with the takeaways and work backward. Once you’re in draft mode, start with the key takeaways or action items, and include them concisely at the bottom of your post. From there, you can work backward, crafting an introduction. This will help you find the “point” of your email faster, and will help you avoid any unnecessary tangents.
- Learn which sentences and phrases can be skipped. If you’re like most email writers, you have a tendency to fall back on conversational tropes that aren’t imperative to the presentation or interpretation of your message. Things like “Hey! Hope you’re doing well. When you get a chance, if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you’d…” add needless words to a simple request. Of course, if you’re managing a relationship and you want your message to come off as less formal, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of personal back-and-forth. The problem comes in when these informal “fluff” phrases end up costing you several extra minutes per message.
The trick here is to balance these speedy tactics with principles of effective email writing; yes, you’ll spend extra time organizing your thoughts and formatting your email so it’s easily skimmable, but that’s always worth the investment, since you’ll be decreasing your recipients’ reading times and improving overall understanding. Instead, these tactics are meant to be used to “trim the fat,” cutting away the unnecessary time delays.
8. Response Time
What It Is The last metric on our list is “response time,” which measures the average time it takes you to respond to a message in your inbox. Using EmailAnalytics, you can also measure the average time it takes for your recipients to respond to your messages, but for productivity, your own response time is more important. Why It’s Important Your email response time is important because most people expect a response within 24 hours—and it’s generally accepted that the faster you respond, the better. In most cases, this is accurate; a fast response time indicates your attentiveness, and provides information to your recipients faster, which in turn, can mitigate or prevent hiccups in productivity. However, your response time variance and consistency can also tell you about how productively you manage your email. Warning Signs There are a few warning signs to watch for here:
- Slow response times. If you consistently fail to respond to emails within a day or so, it could mean that your inbox is overly clogged with messages, or that you aren’t effective at managing your workloads. If you’re reading this guide, it’s highly unlikely that you’re deliberately ignoring messages—but that could be a problem too. Either way, slow response times are going to damage your professional relationships and stop important information from flowing efficiently.
- Overly fast response times. You may be surprised to see this warning sign here, but it’s almost as bad as overly slow response times. If every message you receive gets a response within a few minutes, it means email inbox management has completely taken over your life. You’re dropping tasks left and right, and probably interrupting conversations so you can check your email. And while your customers and coworkers might appreciate the fast responses, you’re short-changing yourself on time to focus on other tasks, and overall, your productivity will fall.
- Significant variance. If there’s a significant variance in your response times, it could be a sign that you manage your email inconsistently or inefficiently. It means you don’t have a clear process for reading and responding to emails, and over time, that means you’ll get less done.
How to Improve There are a few different ways to respond, depending on the nature of the issue:
- Minimize clutter. If your response times are slow, try reducing the amount of clutter in your inbox—it’s likely that your messages are getting buried by other messages. Unsubscribe from whatever you can, try to reduce and stabilize your incoming email streams, and file away any inbox emails that don’t warrant a response.
- Designate off periods. If your response times are too fast, try the “off period” tactic I mentioned a couple times in previous sections—designate clear “off” hours where you don’t check or manage your email at all. Instead, use that time to focus on important heads-down work.
- Create a workflow for managing email. If your times are inconsistent, it means you need to work on your email workflow. Establish a clear process for reading, responding, and organizing your emails that you can follow from day to day. Consistency is key here.
Your response time will never be perfect, because emails vary in content and urgency too broadly. Still, any improvement you make here can be valuable.
Paving the Path to Perfection
Once you dig into the details of your email habits, you’ll likely discover dozens of mistakes, and dozens of areas for potential improvement. Try not to be intimidated or frustrated by this; every small change you make will have a big impact on your overall productivity, especially in the context of the months and years you’ll spend carrying those changes forward. Email productivity is an enormous area for exploration, and one that’s only starting to be explored, so if you’re paying any attention to your own habits, you’re already ahead of the curve.
It may take some time for your coworkers and clients to catch up to you, but you can set an example for company-wide improvement so long as you have the right tools at your disposal to do so. Everything starts with accurate measurement and useful data presentation, which is why EmailAnalytics is the best tool for the job. Give it a try, and see how these metrics are already affecting your overall productivity.
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