Email – it's one of the most heavily used kinds of software, and yet, it can make us feel like we're struggling to keep our heads above water sometimes. Is your inbox pages long? Do you begin every day reading emails, thinking you'll reply to the most important ones, only to look up and realise an hour has already slipped by? Are you running out of allowed Inbox space every few days?
With a few very simple organisational tricks, you can be more efficient with email. Some of these tips utilise functions found in most email programs, but many of them are ways that you can change your own habits to affect your email workflow. They restructure how you use different email functions, adding a little bit of foresight so that when it comes time to delete and archive messages, you've already done much of the hard work.
Let me share with you some of my favourite email tips. I've tried to explain them in a way that will apply to most people, but do bear in mind that how you use email might differ from how other people use it. My workflow may not match yours exactly. And that's kind of the point.
There are likely shortcuts and efficiencies that I've found because of my workflow that you might not have ever discovered in yours, even if they're totally applicable. In that same vein, please post your tips, too, at the end of the article in the comments section. There's a lot we can learn from each other.
Okay, on with the tips…
1. Delete first
When I open my email inbox at the beginning of the day, the very first thing I do is delete unnecessary messages, without opening them at all. I do this step even before opening and reading high priority mail. Most of the messages I toss are auto-alerts, and I can tell from the subject line whether they require action – usually, they don't. Keep in mind that moving messages to the trash bin does not wipe them out immediately. If you realise later in the day that you needed a message, you can still retrieve it, so long as you haven't emptied the trash bin yet.
Probably the worst habit I've seen in email users is that they hang onto messages that they think they will act on, but never do (more on that in a bit). If you can identify even ten per cent of your daily incoming mail as "very likely not requiring action" so that you can delete it without opening any of the messages, you'll be in much better shape to start your day productively.
2. Write concisely
When writing emails, say what you mean, be clear, and use as few words as possible. There are some situations that call for complete sentences and adherence to formal language, but I personally feel that fragments are extremely useful in most other email communication. Certainly, sometimes you want to be highly detailed to take advantage of the paper-trail aspect of email: There's a record of everything. But use concise, clear, and straightforward language when you can.
When trying to be terse, tone can be problematic. To avoid sounding unfriendly, use "hedging words" to soften strong remarks. For example, instead of "These reports are wrong," try, "These reports may be wrong," or "I think these are the wrong reports."
3. Reuse sent messages
If there are certain messages that you send over and over, such as confirmations or sign-off messages for a repeated task, reuse a sent message from the last email of that kind. Strip out the "Re:" in the subject line, update the details if need be, and send. Why do the same task over and over?
4. Reuse subject lines
Reusing sent messages increases your efficiency by minimising writing. Reusing subject lines, a related trick, enables you to more easily and quickly delete or archive old messages. I'll explain why in tip number six.
5. Use groups
If you email the same group of people repeatedly, set up a group or email alias. In Outlook, it's called a Distribution List. Not only will you save yourself time by not having to type each person's name when you mail the group, you'll also set yourself up for easy deleting tactics, as explained in the next section.
6. Sort to delete
Data limits can sneak up on anyone, even highly organised people, without warning. When it's time to delete, start by sorting your sent messages either by file size or attachment. You can often tell at a glance which will be more effective. Delete whatever you don't need from the top two tiers. The reason I advocate deleting sent mail first is you're more likely to have any attachments saved locally, and information about the messages is either locally saved as well (or in your head).
Another group of messages to delete in a pinch is routine messages, in particular those that you have reused, or that have the same subject line, or that are sent to one particular group. Sort your sent mail by subject or "To" field, and you can whack them to the trash in one shot. When sorting by subject line, keep the most recent two or three so you can continue reusing them.
7. Turn off notifications
Does an alert pop up every time you receive a new incoming message? Only in the rarest cases is this feature helpful. If instant alerts are pertinent to your job (and you'll know if they are), leave them alone. Everyone else, however: Turn them off permanently. Email alerts are highly distracting.
8. Close email when you need to focus
Close your email application or sign out of webmail when you need to do work that requires real focus for at least 30 minutes. "Unthinkable!" you protest. Try it. When an email program is open, it's tempting to check periodically (or obsessively) for new mail. Closing the program entirely removes the temptation.
9. Use auto-replies for more than just out-of-office messages
If you honestly worry that someone will try to contact you with an urgent matter in the stretch of time that you'll have your email turned off, set up an out of office or auto-reply message that says, "If this is a highly urgent matter, please call me on..." and give your phone number or your assistant's number. You can even set up an auto-reply that only goes to internal employees.
10. Delete! Or at the very least, file messages in folders
Know when to let go. Set aside your good intentions and don't hang onto messages which you probably won't act upon. Leaving unimportant messages in your inbox is highly unproductive, distracting, and only reminds you of what you would like to do in a perfect world but can't.
If deleting seems too severe, set up folders (I like to name my folders by year and month) and move those "good intention" emails out of your inbox. I promise you, they're not doing you any favours being front and centre.
11. Empty your trash last
Empty the trash either every day or once a week, and always at the end of the day. There is a danger in deleting your trash too often. I've rescued many a message from the trash bin, but almost always in the same day that I put it there. Dumping the bin once a day, at the end of the day, is fine. You can do it once a week if you prefer, as long as you remember to do it. Most email programs, including Microsoft Outlook, have a setting for automatically dumping the trash bin whenever you quit the application. If you never remember to dump the trash, I recommend turning that feature on.