Is email killing your freelance productivity?

7 min to read

For many freelancers, email is a no-brainer prerequisite of running your own business. It’s a means to reach out to prospective leads, keep in touch with existing clients and network without even having to worry about a WiFi connection or any canape small talk. Result.

But what if it transpired that email could actually be the unexpected productivity drain that none of us saw coming? 

After all: being glued to your inbox might make you appear more ‘on it’, tapping into that 24/7 work-hard-play-hard cliche that seems to fuel every fictional version of the hustle-hustle freelance dream. However, the stats surrounding our problematic usage of email are hard to avoid.

Research conducted by Bupa UK found that the average working millennial will dip in and out of their inbox for around 12 hours a day, with the first check taking place at 6.37am. Over a fifth (22%) of those quizzed said they believed they would look ‘uncommitted’ if they didn’t respond to emails out of hours, with additional research by Adobe finding that millennials are three-times more likely to check work emails at events such as weddings.

 Even our down-time is dominated by inbox FOMO, with the Adobe data-set finding that over a third (36%) of millennials will keep an eye on their emails whilst ‘relaxing’ in front of the TV. Whether it’s an intentional check or a case of muscle memory encouraging you to refresh your inbox, it’s certainly problematic when it gets in the way of self-care.

(Well: as much as binge-watching the latest serial killer documentary on Netflix can ever be classified as ‘self-care’ – but you get the jist.)

As well as intruding on our ability to switch off – not to mention contributing towards an exhausting projection of being constantly accessible – our email usage is also proven to be highly unproductive. We all know the agony of being caught up in a seemingly endless email chain, with a notification pinging into existence the moment we try to get back to work.

Additionally, a study shared by Mail Manager earlier in 2021 found that 45% of UK business leaders and decision makers consider ‘poor email management’ as being a significant contributing factor towards lost client opportunities.

 Put bluntly: it’s a distraction. So how can we ensure – whether it’s by changing the way we use it or finding different ways to communicate instead – that we can swap that wasted time and energy for something far more productive?

Think streamlined: Create an email system that works for you

Freelance designer and illustrator Srayva Attaluri has been focusing on switching up the way she works in order to enhance her productivity – with analysis of her email usage crucial to the overhaul.

 “I would wake up each day and spend two hours reading through emails,” she says. “I would honestly forget half the things I read, or that I needed to respond to. Missing out on potential new business enquiries in the ocean of daily spam was what inspired me to change my habits. I realised I couldn’t expand my business until I had proper systems in place for basic communication.” 

Whilst she hasn’t cut email out from the running of her business, Srayva has given serious thought to how she utilises it in the running of her business, creating a system that works for her rather than overwhelms her. “I use Google Workspace: it’s cleaner to use and less overwhelming to navigate, and as a designer and visual learner, this was really important,” she explains. “I’ve created labels and folders within my inbox for clients so now, every time a specific client emails me, their messages are colour-coded.”

And it doesn’t end there. Srayva’s other tips for minimising inbox overwhelm include: 

–   Create templates for standard messages. “I’ve created template emails as drafts for enquiries, invoice follow-ups (in the order of first follow-up, second follow-up and third), pricing and proposal requests. This really helps me save time.”

–   Separate your emails into multiple accounts. “This means one inbox is never flooded. I have one specific account for enquiries that are linked to my website and social media. I have another specifically for ongoing clients and day-to-day client work, and a third specifically for my own newsletter subscriptions.”

–   Schedule emails in advance. “If I have to send monthly invoices, for example, I’ll write the messages ahead of time and schedule them to send so I don’t have to worry about missing any.”

Could you swap email for another communication method? 

Whilst cutting email entirely from our lives might not be feasible, giving thought and consideration to how we use it absolutely is. So how can we make it work for us, as opposed to feeling enslaved to it?

Brand and communications strategist Alex Fearon went freelance last year – and instantly noticed a significant difference in the way she used email.

“When I was in full-time employment, we were a small team who either used Slack or just asked each other questions in-person,” she explains. “When I went freelance last year, my usage shot up and before I knew it, I was using email for everything. The noise it created felt relentless.”

She continues: “It got to the point where I’d dread opening my inbox and I felt like it was negatively affecting my mental health. I logged my time and realised I’d spend at least an hour in the morning just on my inbox. The real catch was that I left my Gmail tab open all day – so without realising it, I was checking my inbox all the time.”

Part of the frustration lay in the fact that Alex knew a chunk of the messages she received would be easier to tackle in a different form; Trello cards, for example, where tasks could be tracked and actioned, rather than getting lost in sprawling email chains.

 She decided to take action and limit the amount of time she spent emailing her clients with the help of a few carefully thought out steps – and has shared her tips if you want to do the same.

 –   Be upfront with your clients: “I think over the last year we’ve all become acutely aware of how our online behaviour affects our productivity and wellbeing,” she explains. “So when I proposed a change in how we work so that we could spend more time actually doing the work, everyone was on board.”

–   Settle on new inbox habits: “It took about six weeks before I got into a new rhythm of working,” Alex admits. “I now check my emails before 9am for anything important, such as new project queries. I limit this time to 15 minutes.”

–   Create a ‘user guide’ to handle customer expectation: “I joined a business mentorship program called the Mad & Sad Club,” says Alex. “The organiser encouraged me to share my ideal way of working, which formed the basis of a user manual.” The document informs clients she won’t check her inbox until midday, introduces them to how she uses Trello and urges them to call if a query is important.

Similarly for Emily Harrison, founder of The Empowerment Agency, switching email for another platform has worked wonders. A need-for-speed is crucial to keeping client comms under control at her social media management and marketing business – but she’s found a way to ensure she’s not chained to her inbox.

Much like Alex realised strict timeframes and Trello were her preferred email alternatives, Emily discovered that encouraging her clients to reach her by WhatsApp enhanced rather than stifled the way she lives and works.

“If something important comes up, my clients know they can send me a quick message and I can deal with it there and then, whether I’m out for lunch or at soft play with the kids,” she explains. “I think in an ever-changing world, where things are urgent and fast-moving, the communication methods we use also need to adapt. Using WhatsApp completely removes the need to be constantly checking my inbox.”

Breaking the habit: how to curb email check-ins

We all do it. Whether it’s via our smartphones, computers or even fitness watches, the compulsion to ‘just check’ our emails can be overwhelming. In a world where we’re constantly connected, failure to respond instantly to a message might as well be an admittance of not being interested in the client query or new opportunity that’s just landed in your inbox, right?

Of course, we all know – deep down – that that’s not the case. So how can we break the habit and limit our overwhelming desires to check our emails – whether out of need or out of muscle memory reflex?

Not everyone will want or need to trim their email usage. You might have the balance just right, or thrive on being constantly accessible and connected. However, assuming you’ve identified a desire to curb your email usage, there are a few simple things you can start trying today.

Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day: think gradual rather than instant

If you’ve gone from checking in on your inbox every time you make a coffee or are away from your desk, snapping instantly out of that reflexive behaviour can be difficult. In fact, research shared by UCL in 2009 found it takes an average of 66 days to snap out of a habit. 

“Breaking habits can be tough,” says mindset and confidence coach Amy Leighton. “If you want to stop constantly checking your emails, phasing it out gradually is likely to be the most effective method for long-lasting change.”

Not sure when to begin? “If you’re hoping to make a positive change in your life but are pessimistic about your chances, perhaps because you’ve failed before and worry another attempt is likely to turn out similarly, my advice is to look for fresh-start opportunities,” advises behavioural scientist Katy Milkman, author of How To Change (Vermilion, 2021). “Is there an upcoming date that could represent a clean break with the past? It could be a birthday, the start of summer, or even just a Monday…”

Consider what your must-check triggers are

“Change your environment so that the cue(s) that trigger the behaviour is no longer present,” suggests Amy. “Is it a notification sound that cues you? Try putting your phone onto DND or turn off push notifications. Is it boredom? Go and make a cup of tea and leave your phone in a different room. Can’t sleep? Leave your phone outside the bedroom.”

Create a plan for how you want to communicate with clients

Be specific about what you want your usage of email to look like. “Set times that you’re going to check your emails and communicate them clearly,” Amy says. “Use your email down-time to be more present with whatever is going on around you.”