The 30 Day Marketing Boot Camp for Freelance Writers

Optimize Your Email to Become a More Productive Writer

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on May 4, 2011 in Productivity & Organization
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Increasing your productivity can go a long way towards helping you build your freelance writing career in the way you want to. It's how you work smarter, not harder. You can get more done (and make more money) even though you spend fewer hours working. Or you can open up more billable hours in your existing schedule. What's not to love?

For me, I still have one big time-zap in my day. Email. It's the one thing I haven't been able to get fully under control... until now. I want to share a few tips, some of which you might not have considered, for optimizing your inbox and email habits to become a more productive writer. But first...

How Email Can Become a Time Suck

Before you can focus on optimizing your email inbox, you need to figure out which problems you're trying to tackle. How does your email actually interfere with your day? Here are a few examples of problems an overwhelming inbox can cause if you don't get it under control.

  • If you use a single email program to download and manage both business and personal email, personal messages can distract you during the hours you're supposed to be working.  Sometimes there isn't even a clear distinction -- like email from a colleague that varies between personal and work-related.
  • When you get hundreds to thousands of messages in a short period of time, it can take a little while to sort through spam that got through your filter.
  • When you have a bunch of unread messages in your inbox, you can feel tempted to take care of them all at once even if only one or two are actually urgent and worth interrupting other things you're working on at that moment.
  • If you subscribe to blog comments (your own or someone else's) notifications of comments can pull you out of your intended work routine. You instead get caught up in the conversations. (This was one of my own biggest problems.)

How to Organize and Optimize Your Email for Increased Productivity

Here are a few things I've done to get my inbox back under control, and ideas that might work for you too.

  • If too much spam seems to be getting through, increase your server-side spam controls (if you host your own email). I had this problem after merging to our new server, even though I used the exact spam settings we used previously. I don't know why, but I had to get stricter about spam.
  • If you run one or more blogs using WordPress, go into the settings and tell WordPress to stop sending you comment notifications if you currently receive them. Instead set aside time to manually check comments once or twice a day to moderate and respond to them.
  • Unsubscribe from comment subscriptions on others' blogs. I used to subscribe for convenience. But in reality it became the biggest distraction of all. It's easy to get caught up in conversations when you tell yourself it's just a quick email check. I cancelled those subscriptions, and won't subscribe to others unless absolutely necessary (such as if I write a guest post and want to stay on top of every comment coming through). This is a situation where a tool that's supposed to be convenient actually becomes more of an inconvenience if you're not careful.
  • Make use of your email folders. Filter email from specific people into their own email folders. For example, I frequently exchange emails with Yolander Prinzel and Lori Widmer. So those lucky ducks have their very own folders now. When we have a long back and forth conversation I can see who's responded recently without having to see the email content by default. I can get back to it when I have more time instead of immediately jumping in and procrastinating on other things that need to get done. You can do the same for clients who tend to email you a lot, people who love to send you those fun little forwards you don't always have time for, or for more personal contacts you want to respond to after you complete your scheduled work.
  • Decrease the frequency of automatic email checks. Personally I use Windows Mail to download my email from my server. I used to have it automatically download emails every half hour. When I'd get a notification of new email, I'd check it. Now I have it check once an hour, and as I ween myself from the habit I'll have the automatic checks occur even less frequently. I'm still working on my manual check habit though. I'm trying to knock that off entirely other than when I'm waiting on something urgent.
  • If you use browser-based email, turn off instant notifications. If your browser toolbar tells you you have new mail the moment it comes through and you can't resist checking it, turn that feature off.
  • If you run multiple email accounts through a single software app like I do, try setting some addresses to manual checks only -- the ones you don't use as frequently. For example, I have two email addresses I check obsessively, and the rest are usually site-specific and can be checked once each day. They can be removed from the automatic downloads and manually downloaded at the beginning and / or end of the day.

Do you have other tips for getting your email inbox under control so you can avoid the distraction? Has overwhelming email affected you in some other way than the examples I gave? Leave a comment below to share your own stories and tips.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.


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The 30 Day Marketing Boot Camp for Freelance Writers

6 Comments

  1. Cathy Miller May 4, 2011 Reply

    Turn off your Blackberry or smart phone! I thought I was so clever with staying away from my email while working, but here was the problem. My Blackberry (with my work and personal email accounts) sits on my desk and starts blinking its little red light when there is a new message.

    I’m weak. I admit it. I cannot resist that blinking red light so now I turn it off and just check it at scheduled times.

    Jenn, some great ideas here I hadn’t thought of. One of the positives I actually like about my style is my responsiveness to client emails, but you can balance that with productivity..

    • Jennifer Mattern May 4, 2011 Reply

      lol I refuse to get a smart phone. And this is one of the biggest reasons. I know myself well enough to know that I’d be “at work” 24/7 if I did. And that’s not acceptable for me personally. And I’d want to leave it on in case there was an “emergency” or something. Just not for me. Glad to hear you were able to find a solution though so you don’t have to be a slave to it. :)

      You’re right. There has to be balance. I think checking on them hourly is more than fair. It’ll still be a bit more until I break my manual email check habit though. And I try to remind myself that it’s better for clients this way too. Yes, getting a near instant response is nice. But what’s much nicer is knowing your contractors aren’t checking email from others left and right when they’re supposed to be working on your project. I’d rather give them my dedicated attention until something is finished rather than be even more obsessive about the email response time. Now I just need to learn to respect my own projects that much. I’m good about checking in between client projects, but I’ll interrupt my own constantly.

  2. Good tips, Jenn. I got rid of a lot of notifications and unsubscribed from several lists a few months back to reduce inbox clutter. Like you, I have also stopped subscribing to comments. Since I tend to read and comment on the same blogs much of the time, I just go back to them a couple times a week to check for a response to my comment.

    I do have a smartphone, but not a Blackberry, and I haven’t installed the default email app to avoid those pesky notifications. Instead, I’ve installed the standalone Gmail app, which I can switch on any time I need to check email on the go, which isn’t often.

    • Jennifer Mattern May 4, 2011 Reply

      I think the biggest problem I’m left with now is the manual checks. I run over a dozen email addresses (general ones tied to specific sites for ad inquiries, review materials, reader questions, etc.) but I don’t use most of them frequently. I want to check those just once a day and have the usual ones checked automatically. I’d love the daily checks to be automatic too, but I can’t seem to do that with Windows Mail. I could if I moved everything to Outlook, but I’ve avoided that due to sheer volume and the fact that I’m not sure I want to use bloated software when I really only want access to one of the features. Decisions, decisions.

      The comment subscriptions are a huge weight off my shoulders. They were destroying work days, especially in more heated conversations. Now I just say what I need to say and leave. I may check back, I may not; it depends on the actual story and whether or not I still care the next day (or even remember it). I really want to increase the number of blogs I visit and comment on on a regular basis, but if I’m constantly caught up in lengthy discussions with the same few folks, that’s never going to happen. I won’t stop. I just need to get better about how I spread myself around.

  3. Prerna June 4, 2011 Reply

    Excellent tips, Jennifer. The email does tend to become my biggest Time Sink. And I agree with Cathy about smartphones. I have a tendency to get addicted to things like these and so, I turn it off especially when I’m hanging out with my daughter. :-)

    • Jennifer Mattern June 6, 2011 Reply

      It’s always good to find balance like that. Glad to hear you’re making it work for you Prerna. :)

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