If you ask me where modern management begins, I would respond that it starts with your email box management. Indeed, email has become one of the main communication channels over the last twenty years, and most managers spend a great deal of time processing emails and responding to them.
Recently, I have realized that, despite my vast experience with email technology, I never thought if I’ve been using it effectively. Moreover, I have always had a strong feeling that I’m not doing that in the right way. It is obvious because nobody taught me to work with email in school or university. After all, when I was a student, this technology wasn’t here yet. I doubt that even today’s students are taught this skill. That’s why I decided to investigate this topic and share my findings with you.
It turns out that when it comes to the productivity email, maybe either your best friend or your worst enemy. It can be a source of distraction, and it can take way too much precious time from your working day, which you might use for more valuable tasks.
Let’s see how you can improve your email processing skills by applying useful techniques and tools. When giving examples, I refer to Gmail as the most wide-spread email service in the world right now, however, I think that almost all of the described approaches will work with any other email services as well.
Tips for better email management/processing:
1. Check email only at specific periods of the day
A lot of managers struggle with the problem of constant email checking. This habit turns email from an effective instrument into an addiction that causes distraction, anxiety, and inefficiency. I believe that the basis of such behavior is a fear of missing something urgent and/or important. However, this is an irrational fear and let me explain why.
First of all, you should realize that email was designed as a passive way of communication. It means that when someone sends you an email, it usually doesn’t mean that the sender expects you to immediately answer or take any actions. Business etiquette implies that you’re expected to respond within 24 hrs. Sure, from time to time you will get urgent requests from your boss or client or any other important person by email, but, if somebody really needs to get in touch with you urgently, they will probably use instant messenger or a phone call.
To avoid constant email distraction and anxiety, I suggest you set up a schedule to check your email box. Instead of checking it chaotically throughout the day, define clear time slots for doing this. I recommend checking email three times per day – in the morning, right before the beginning of your working day, in the middle of the day(after lunch), and at the end of your working day. Such a schedule works well for me because checking email at the beginning of the day allows me to plan my current day, mid-day checkup helps me to course correct the daily plan in case of some urgent requests or emergencies, and checking it at the end of the day allows me to plan the following working day. Depending on your email traffic and workload, you may adjust this schedule to checking email twice per day or four times per day.
I believe that this schedule will let you optimize your working day, significantly reduce distractions and improve your overall effectiveness. By the way, don’t forget to turn off notifications about incoming emails, these are real monsters of distraction.
2. Choose your type of email display order
Many email services allow their users to set up the order in which their emails are displayed in the mailbox. The default view is when the latest emails are shown at the top, however, you can change it to display unread emails first, or those that are marked as starred (or flagged), etc. This is how it is organized in Gmail.
I tried to play with different settings for email order and ended up with what works best for me – showing starred (in Gmail) or flagged (in Outlook) emails at the top of the email box. Whenever I get an important email that will require my attention or actions in the future, I mark it as starred/flagged, and it moves it to the top of my email box where it resides until I remove the mark. I get used to going through the list of my starred items daily and refine it, removing not actual items, and at the same time reminding myself about any actions required from me on those that are still relevant.
3. Organize your Inbox with folders/labels and make use of filters.
When we open our email to check for updates, we are using the Inbox page of our email service or our desktop client’s Inbox folder. We got so accustomed to this, so that we don’t realize that Inbox is just one of the many folders in our email software. However, most modern email services allow you to create additional folders and move certain types of emails to these folders. Folders usage together with incoming email filtering will enable you to organize better and clean up your mailbox.
Folders are called Labels in Gmail, however, they serve the same purpose. You’re creating a new Label and then can move some kinds of emails to this Label, cleaning out your Inbox folder from them. You can definitely move incoming emails manually to corresponding Labels or Folders, however, there is a built-in powerful Filter functionality that allows you to set up some redirect rules. If an incoming email meets specific criteria, it can be automatically moved to a particular Folder(Label), bypassing the Inbox folder.
You may filter emails based on their sender, subject lines, specific keywords in the body and then redirect them to appropriate folders in your mailbox. I usually create specific folders in my email box for different notification emails, like Jira issues updates, for example. I get tons of such emails per day, but in most cases, I don’t need to be aware of them or take any actions, so I don’t even check these folders regularly. Though in case I need any of these emails, I know where to find them.
4. Flag (star) important emails and return to them twice a day
Starring (in Gmail) and flagging (in Outlook and other email clients) incoming emails is another way to organize your mailbox, which is very similar to distributing them by folders. However, there is a significant difference. When you put an incoming email in any folder, it usually means that no immediate or soon action is required on that email: you simply need to keep it there just in case. This is a different case with the starred emails. Usually, we mark with the star (or flag) those emails that are important and require some actions from our side, but for any reason, we can’t do this action immediately. So, we mark such kinds of emails in order not to forget about them.
This implies that we need to regularly go through the list of starred emails to check if no deadlines on response are missed and if we already can do whatever is required. I suggest checking starred emails twice a day, in the morning and the evening. This regularity will allow you not to miss anything important. After you have completely processed a starred email and no more action on it is required, don’t forget to uncheck the “star” mark and remove the email from the Starred folder.
5. Immediately delete irrelevant emails
Wherever you work, I’m pretty sure that you receive emails that have no value to you at all or have a very short lifetime. If such emails stay in your Inbox, they will constantly get in your way when you’re searching for certain items, which is very irritating. I suggest completely removing such kinds of emails from your Inbox to get rid of not needed junk.
Let me give you few examples of such emails from my personal Inbox: meeting invitation responses (you may see them directly in calendar invites), notifications when someone joined your Zoom meeting (probably you can disable these, but I still haven’t figured out how), company reminders about someone’s birthday (it’s definitely helpful, but after you have got it and congratulated the person, it becomes useless). You definitely will have your own examples of such emails, so go and delete them. It will make your life a little bit easier.
6. Apply the “Two-minute rule” to incoming emails
The “Two-minute rule” was originally introduced by the author and productivity consultant David Allen for combatting procrastination. But it is very well applicable for processing emails. It says that if it takes less than two minutes (or three minutes, there are variations) to answer an email, do it instantly and then remove it from your Inbox unless you don’t need to get back after your reply. This will help you to keep your inbox folder more or less clean and use your time dedicated to processing emails effectively.
If an email can’t be answered in two minutes, you probably need to mark it as one that needs attention (Starred) and take necessary actions later.
7. Use Gmail Smart Features
If you’re a lucky user of the Gmail service, you can make the most of its smart features. There are plenty of them available, but I’m using only two that I will share in this article.
The first of them is the “Snooze” feature. Let’s say you got an email that doesn’t require any attention from you at the moment but will definitely require your attention later. Maybe some event in the future should happen to unblock your work on the issue, or the mentioned email is just not on time.
A good example can be an invitation to register for an event, which will take place in a few months. You may be interested in that event but may not have time to go and fill all the application fields right now because you’re busy. What are your options? Well, you may leave it in your Inbox, even mark it somehow and then hope to return to it later, but there are still chances that you will forget about it. Even if you double-check all your marked emails, it will still reside in your Inbox for all that time, creating an extra mess, which you surely don’t want.
Fortunately, there is a better option. You may “Snooze” that email for some time. It means that this email will be removed from your Inbox as if you had never received it. But later, on the date defined by you, you will get it again. For example, if you know that the registration deadline for the mentioned event is in a month, you may set the date when you want to get this email again, and it will come to your Inbox closer to the registration deadline.
Another useful feature that I admire is kind of similar to Snooze but in a different direction. It is called Send later, and it allows you to literally Send your emails to recipients later, on the schedule you set. As I work with distributed teams worldwide, it often happens that when I am in the middle of my working day, my colleagues or clients are in the middle of the night, or they may have a national holiday on the day when I’m working.
However, it still may be necessary to send my colleagues an email that they should read later. I know that many of them have email apps set up on their phones, and they may forget to disable notifications. I don’t want to bother my peers, let alone my clients, with irritating work-related messages during their time off. So, I set up a Send later option that allows me to prepare the email message but delay it in time. You set up when you want the message to be sent, and Gmail sends it automatically at the right moment.
I know that there are more add-ons in Gmail Lab, and even different add-ons exist, like Boomerang, for example, that allow you to use even more smart features and automatization. You may explore them and use them to your advantage.
Well, these are my life hacks on making work with email more efficient and less stressful. But I’m sure that you also have some tricks to share. Please, respond to the comments with them.