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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