Productivity Tips: Email Management

Oh email. This is quite possibly the number one area in which I see people handling things in a very unproductive and chaotic way. Managing email, for some reason, is a daunting task for many people I have talked to about the topic, but it can be really easy to start and maintain.

Before I get into specific tips, I just want to say that email management is another area in which what works for me may or may not work for you, and it is important to find a system that works for you. That being said, I encourage you to try the different things I mention below rather than simply think you have things covered. Many people think they are good at managing email but they're actually missing a lot of emails they don't realize; trying some of the tactics I mention can help you to find out whether or not that's the case for you.

As another brief note, I use Gmail for nearly all of my email. Consequently, I will talk about tactics and services that work well with Gmail, but may or may not be possible with other services (e.g., Yahoo, Outlook). What email service you use is a personal choice, so I'm not going to tell you to switch to Gmail, just know that my tips may or may not work with the service you have chosen.

With those disclaimers out of the way, here are my general email tips:

1. Reduce spam: This is something I see all the time - an inbox that has over 1000 unread emails and the majority of emails visible at any moment are mostly spam emails from various websites telling the person about deals or notifications. If you never read these emails, they are simply cluttering up your inbox and increasing the likelihood that you'll miss an important email. In fact, the people I know who tend to be horrible at responding to emails usually have this as their number 1 problem.

The good news is that it is really easy to reduce this spam! For any automatically generated offers, nearly all will have an "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of the email. Click that, and it should be easy to be taken off the list for good. If the spam includes notifications from sites like Facebook, log in to your account and change your settings so you don't receive email for everything (or at all). Just do this every time you see a spam email message (I promise, it only takes a minute), and you'll see your inbox become less cluttered within a week.

2. Use filters: Generally, the above covers just about all the spam emails you get. However, there are some cases where unsubscribing is not easy (e.g., for some odd reason there is no "unsubscribe" link in the email). In these cases, create a filter that automatically deletes (or, if you prefer, archives) emails sent from the email address that is used to send the messages. Again, it takes a minute to do, and it helps to significantly clean up your inbox going forward.

There are also other uses for filters. With Gmail's tabbed inbox, you can make sure certain emails (e.g., messages from a listserv) are always categorized properly. You can have labels automatically applied (if labels are helpful for you). If there is something you want to always happen when you get a certain type of email, look to see if a filter can be made to handle that for you. Using filters will not only reduce clutter in your inbox, but also make things much more organized and decrease the odds of something being missed (e.g., if important emails are going to your spam folder, create a filter to say that emails from an address should never be spam).

3. Archive archive archive: This, to me, is probably the most important thing you can do for your inbox. If all of your emails are simply in your inbox, then that is a problem; important emails can get lost in the sea of emails that you've already attended to or decided are not important. Rather than leave them in your inbox, archive them! Archiving emails keeps them available to search for under All Mail, but it clears it from your inbox. 

Try to archive every email that does not require an action from you. (And, if an email does require an action, consider using something like Todoist to create a task from the email so you can still archive it; see my last post). Gmail has a lab feature that adds a Send + Archive button to emails. It's great! Enable that, and when you reply to an email you can send and archive the email simultaneously, and then you can forget about the email until a response shows up in your inbox (or, if you need to follow-up later, see my tip below about Boomerang).

My goal is always to keep my inbox empty when possible. If that seems daunting (which is likely the case for someone with thousands of emails in their inbox), then consider archiving everything in your inbox at the moment and then maintaining it from there. If your inbox is unorganized right now, then archiving everything isn't likely to put you in any worse position than you're already in.

4. Don't over-think timing: I have met several people who worry that responding to an email too quickly will set an expectation that they will always respond to emails immediately. My experience has been that people understand that a 24 hour response time is typical for email, and that anything requiring a fast response should be sent another way. Therefore, quickly responding to emails simply gets them out of your inbox sooner, which is beneficial to you! If needed, just make it clear that you sometimes can respond to emails rapidly but that your colleagues should plan to allow you at least 24 hours for all emails, as it may take you that long to respond. My experience has been that everyone agrees on 24 hours (or 48 hours less ideally) as a reasonable timeframe for emails.

5. Automate tasks: Along with filters, consider services to help you automate tasks. Do you need to follow-up to an email if you haven't gotten a response in a week? Use Boomerang so you can archive the email and have it returned to your inbox once it is time to follow-up. Simple, reduces the cognitive load of remembering when you need to respond to a bunch of emails, and keeps your inbox clean. A link to Boomerang is below.

6. Be able to step away: While it is important to keep up with your email, it is also important to not let it take over your life. It is also important to know when you're able to trust yourself to handle emails; if you're tired in the morning or evening, you may send emails that you regret later on. To help with this, it can be useful to set a certain time window during the day in which you're able to handle email (e.g., 9am to 9pm), and to set aside time for yourself occasionally (e.g., only checking email a couple of times, if at all, on the weekends).

This can be done through will power, but it can be tough when your phone is always notifying you of emails during your "off" times. To help with that, you can use a service like Inbox Pause (link below) which "pauses" your emails for a period of time and results in no notifications. While the service doesn't work perfectly (e.g., I couldn't get the automatic unpausing to work), the general functionality seems to work, and it can be really nice to pause your inbox on the weekend.

7. Consolidate if possible: Like I mentioned in my previous post, consolidating can be really useful because it means fewer things to keep track of, which reduces cognitive load. Pretty much any email service you use should allow some form of access from outside the service (via imap and/or pop3). Thanks to that, you can have all of your emails pulled into one account. For example, my work emails are pulled into Gmail so they show up among my person emails (and I have a filter to label the work emails, so I know what account the email was sent to). In Gmail, once an account is connected you can also send emails using that account, so it removes the need to log in to a separate service constantly. This may not always be possible (e.g., if your workplace forbids doing so due to the confidential nature of some emails), but it's great to do when possible.

8. Know the difference between to/cc/bcc: Alright, this isn't all that important for email management. However, it's something that confuses a lot of people, and this seems like an appropriate place to discuss this. Yes, to: and cc: function nearly the same way; the difference between them is that to: implies the person/people should take some sort of action because of the email (e.g., reply), whereas cc: implies that the email is just an FYI for the person/people to keep them informed. Bcc: does function differently; those who are bcc'd cannot see the others who were bcc'd. The best use for bcc: is when you want to send an email to a lot of people, but you want to keep the email addresses private or you want to remove the risk of a Reply All going to everyone. (On that note, please be mindful of when to Reply All versus not; I won't discuss that here, just give some thought to it. Hint: I use Reply All as the default in Gmail, so it's appropriate a lot of the time, but definitely not all of the time).

Those are my general tips for emails. I promise, keeping your inbox clean is a lot easier than you may think, and it results in less cognitive load in the end than trying to manage an inbox with thousands of emails in it. Try to make the unread count actually useful rather than seeing it as some sort of high score =)

Inbox Pause:
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