6 tips to make email a productivity booster instead of a productivity killer

Jumia has a fundamentally decentralized team. We are an African company so we operate in 7 countries. The Jumia teams are positioned in 12 countries (with multiples locations within each country) and in 6 time zones, from Morocco to the Far East.

Naturally, email has become a central tool for the Jumia team. Email was supposed to help us share information in a broader, faster and more seamless way. Email was supposed to increase my productivity. It did totally the opposite for me.

A year ago, I used to receive 400 to 500 emails per day. While I used to spend 3–4 hours on emails per day, at the very least, the number of unread messages in my inbox would not cease growing. I was frustrated, I missed important information, I was late on important projects. I felt that I was always sitting on a ticking bomb.

Email had become a productivity killer, preventing me from spending valuable time thinking and engaging (with our employees, our customers and our vendors) — in a nutshell preventing me from creating real value for the business. I have since then developed a system of my own in order to turn email into a productivity tool. It has worked fantastically well for me, so I thought I would share it:

First and foremost, 2 beliefs shape my email policies:

  1. Email is vacation::

I do not consider working on your emails is… working. Email does not drive change. Email is a reporting tool, and quite an inefficient one. I believe that value at work comes from pro-activity. Email is reactive 90% of the time. Working on your emails is easy. You can easily go with the flow. Read without thinking about the next steps. Reply with no real thoughts since your accountability is less. I work on my emails when I am tired or when I can not really work on anything else (in the metro, in the plane, early in the morning).

2 Email is an electronic letter / memo ; it is not a chat room::

I can still clearly remember my first training session on my first day on the job at McKinsey. Do you know what it was? It sounds pretty incredible. “How to leave a voice mail”. Back then in April 2006, only a few privileged people had a blackberry. Voice mailing was the preferred medium of communication.

Owning a blackberry was a status symbol (I know most of those readings this will not remember that / will not believe this because you are too young!). Which means that people were really not connected, and people were not using email. Do you think they were more productive or less productive? I had a very interesting conversation about that with one of my mentors at McKinsey. He told me that back then (prior to 2006), people were more productive than now. Yes, you read that well. People were more productive than now. Indeed the quality of people’s thinking was much higher ; communication was less fluid. There were less interactions, so every interactions had to be way more fruitful.

Think about this. If you were to send a letter through the post office, you would very likely not get an answer before one week / 5 business days:: 2 days to send the letter, one day to write the answer and another 2 days to collect the answer. 5 days. So before sending your letter, you had to make sure that your thinking was super clear and straight.

I believe that the rise of email led to a decrease of the quality of thinking and written communication. As much as I can I strive to write my emails as if they were paper memos.

My 6 email tips

  1. Send less emails: I send less emails, I receive less email. It is as simple as that. I realised that most of my email pain was self-inflicted. Lots of emails were responses from people from my team to my emails. I am a manager, it makes sense. I send emails, I ask questions, people answer, my email mailbox gets flooded. So I started sending (way) less emails
  2. Send email outside of normal office hours:: same principle as above. I want to decrease the number of answers to my emails. I try to send email before and after normal working hours. I log the issues. I ask questions. We address the points in the office, by talking, not by replying to each other by email
  3. Replace emails by phone calls:: whenever I can. It is nice, as well, to hear people’s voices :)
  4. Closing email loops / never use email for problem solving or conflict resolution:: whenever an email starts to turn into a conversation (i.e., people start to reply to each other, answers get shorter and shorter, time between emails get shorter and shorter, I am sure you have seen that), I suggest we move to slack / skype if there are a lot of people. If there are less than 4 people in the conversation, I create a conference call bridge and put everyone on the phone
  5. “Getting things done” method:: for all the other emails, I use this GTD method. It is superb. http://bit.ly/2j4wJ95
  6. Never write an email when I am angry:: Most people, like me, tend to feel comfortable writing things in an email they would not be comfortable telling someone face to face. It makes email a very good channel “to vent off”, but a very bad channel for conflict resolution. As much as I can, I try to not send an email when I am in a bad mood. If I do, then I write it, save it in my draft and wait for at least 24 hours before sending it. Usually when I open it and read it, I water it down by 90% before sending it.

This takes discipline, but this works for me. I hope it will help you. Happy to hear your tips

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