Email, that hopefully fruitful supply of new clients. That first point of contact between the working you and the rest of the world. Email can also be the biggest time-sink in your life, if you let it.
Firstly, how much time do you spend checking and answering your emails right now? Does it take over the first hour or first three hours of your day? Do you check it a dozen other times throughout the day? Does it ding on your computer and interrupt your working day?
The email habit can take away valuable concentration from your design work and take away unnecessary chunks of your day. But it doesn’t have to. There are systems you can put in place to make sure email is there to support your business not to run your day.
1. Time-block when you’re going to respond to emails.
Set aside some key blocks of time in your day where you decide to read and answer emails. I recommend setting an hour in the early afternoon and an hour at the end of the day. This way you can keep your morning free from too many distractions. Mornings are for most people a prime opportunity to get creative thinking and creative work done. Many of the most creative minds of history were ‘morning people.’
As an interior designer, why waste those creativity-rich hours responding to emails?
You may argue that you’re a night owl who really works best later in the day. Well, you may be interested that another study has argued that the time for your most creative thinking may actually be the opposite of when you consider your most optimal working time. As an interior designer, why waste those creativity-rich hours responding to emails?
2. Schedule your emails.
You may be thinking that sending emails at the end of the day won’t work for you. Your client’s will be checking for your emails at the beginning of the day. Well, that’s perfect. Give your most communicative correspondents something to read at the beginning of the day while you’re getting your most important work done. When you write your emails at the end of the day, don’t immediately send them. Instead, schedule them. Schedule them to be sent at the beginning of the work day. Not only will you be giving the impression of being communicative at the early hours, but you’ll also give the recipients something to read and respond to. Meaning if they don’t respond to you until late in the day, you really won’t be expected to respond until the next day.
Scheduling emails is also really important in setting boundaries with your clients. Inevitably, you might check your work email and draft a quick response after working hours. The key here is to not go ahead and send that response. If you do, that after-hours time stamp will set a precedent to your client that you’re checking emails then. Instead, schedule that response to go out first thing in the morning. Keep your communications within a clear range of working hours to manage your clients’ expectations.
If you’re not sure how to schedule your emails, there are actually a lot of tools out there to help you.
- If you’re using Outlook® for email, you can actually set up ‘Delayed Delivery’. Meaning you tell Outlook when you want the email to be delivered. When you’ve scheduled a bunch of emails, you can then go to your outbox and see them all there ready to go. You can even make edits to the messages if somethings changed.
- If you’re using Gmail there are a number of good options. Boomerang is a popular extension that you can install in Chrome that will give your Gmail interface a host of new options in sending out emails. Not only can you schedule emails via Boomerang, but you can also schedule follow up emails if the first email doesn’t receive a timely response. This feature is excellent for chasing clients automatically when they don’t respond to queries or most importantly invoices. If you’re only needing to use these features occasionally, the basic version will be absolutely fine. However, if you find you would benefit from using these features a lot, you may find investing in the personal or pro plan. It’s a fairly inexpensive monthly investment if you calculate how much the time you save is worth.
- CloudHQ also has a number of helpful extensions you can use for Gmail. Their Schedule Email plugin is free and works great if all you need is to schedule emails out at certain times of day.
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3. Automatically file your emails.
Organising your inbox can also be an incredible time-sink. It doesn’t have to be. With most email providers, you can actually set up rules to automatically filter and file your emails. This way you don’t even have to worry about it.
It can also help you plan how you prioritise your email responses. For example, consider the extreme likely hood that you get very regular emails from an eager product rep from a company that just doesn’t quite make sense for any of your current projects. You could actually set up a rule where any email from that company is automatically filed away in a dedicated folder. This way you have the opportunity to ignore it, and only give it attention when it makes sense to.
Consider as well, when you have a project that’s in full swing versus one that’s wrapping up. If relevant emails are automatically filed away then you can visually see the emails by project and devote your time accordingly. When you have 3 emails about the really active project, and 1 email about the project that’s wrapping up, you can likely go ahead and make the judgment call to address the current project emails first.
This is also a good opportunity to encourage you to use project numbers and include those project numbers on every email. These project numbers can then be incredibly helpful in helping you set up these rules to automatically sort your inbox. Commercial projects would especially benefit from project numbers as they can often have a number of various consultants and clients in email correspondence, so it can be hard to set up rules by each and every sender’s email account. Also, if you send an email with a project number in the subject, then likely the reply will also have the project number in the subject. Easy sorting. Now if you’re working on a project as a consultant for another project lead, you might want to adopt their project number, just to keep your automatic file easy and consistent.
Lastly, consider new enquiries. You can set up a folder just for new client enquiries. Having these enquiries as a separate folder gives you the opportunity to prioritise these emails when you need new business, and give them a bit of time when you’re overwhelmed with current projects.
So how do you automatically file your emails? Easy.
- In Outlook, it’s simply a matter of setting up rules for your folders. You can set Outlook to automatically file emails from certain senders, with certain subjects, etc. to certain folders. You can also set them to be marked read, deleted, flagged, etc. as relevant to the email it is. When you start a new project setting up a new rule for that project’s emails will take likely less than 5 minutes of your day. The subsequent 100s of emails will then always automatically be sorted.
- In Gmail, it’s a matter of setting up a filter for you messages to be automatically labelled. It’s really just a difference in terminology, because the effect is the same as in Outlook. You can set up your filter to organise your message by sender, recipient, subject, with attachments, etc.
4. Automate your responses and have templates whenever possible.
Automation is your friend and my favorite timesaver. If you’ve ever felt like you’re repeating yourself in an email or if you go to an older email and copy and paste a response, then you’re going to love how you can automate your emails.
Now, setting up templates and automation will require a bit more time and some planning in how you want to do it most effectively. It’s likely best for those emails you know you’re writing over and over again.
For example, maybe it’s a thank you email for a new enquiry and you need to send them a questionnaire to get more information from them or a link to schedule an initial consultation with them. That would be a good use of setting up an automatic reply.
If instead, it’s a client who’s looking to understand the implications if they were to increase the scope of their project. That would be a good use of setting up a template email that you can use as needed to answer that question.
Automation is your friend and my favorite timesaver.
Now setting up templates is really easy in both Outlook and Gmail.
- In Outlook, to save a message a template, it’s simply a matter of File > Save As and save as an Outlook template. To send a message based on a template file, it’s a matter of choosing a new item, and then choosing your template from the list that shows after you select Choose Form and User Templates in File System
- In Gmail, you’ll first have to go to your settings, and in the Advanced tab, you’ll need to enable Canned Responses (their terminology for a template). Once that’s enabled, when you’re composing a new message, and click the 3-dot button in the corner of the new message window, you’ll suddenly have the option to save a new canned response. When your new canned response is saved, you then will have the option to insert it into a new message via the same 3-dot button.
Now to set up the automation requires the same method of setting up rules and filters like you did for organising your email into folders.
- For Outlook, you’ll have to set up a rule in which messages with certain subjects or senders, receive a reply using a specific template. This means you’ll need to create the template first. Then, you’ll need to best determine how the senders needing these automatic replies arrive in your inbox. If it’s from a form on your website, you can easily set up any email that has the subject of that form, receives an automatic reply.
- For Gmail, you’ll have to set up a filter in which messages with certain subjects or senders, receive a reply using a specific canned responses. First, you’ll need to enable canned responses and save your new canned response. Then you can go and create a new filter, in which any sender or subject with the relevant details will receive your canned response automatically.
Template and automation will take some time to set up, but they can be immensely time-saving over the course of your career. It might mean that you or even an assistant will have more time free to actually get work done rather than responding to emails in a repetitive way.
If you implement even just one of these steps, then email will become a much more manageable part of your day. If you implement all four, then I bow down to you, master of your inbox domain.
Have you found any other helpful ways of managing that inbox overwhelm? Leave a comment below.
Until next time,