Managing email is often at the top of self and professional improvement lists, and for good reason. We are inundated with tens, hundreds and sometimes thousand of emails daily. It is difficult to ignore.
And while many try to prioritize business responsibilities over email, few of us have the strength to resist the thought, "I will just take a quick look to see if anything important is there."
I certainly have been guilty of these quick peeks, which time and time again draws me into the all-consuming black hole of email detours and distractions and derails my day.
While it is important to properly manage your time with emails, you should not look at emails as a distraction. Instead, start by accepting the fact that email is the primary means of business communication these days and for the foreseeable future. It is just a fact of life, and like the technological innovations before it (with the exception of voice-activated phone systems), it has allowed us to handle and complete a multitude of tasks that otherwise would require much more time and effort.
Now that we have that out of the way, I do suggest you review the many available email management tips and resources that will help you better manage your day, but before you implement all of them, here are a few I have tried and found to be not so helpful.
1. Keeping it brief
Sure, we all hate receiving long diatribes from colleagues and especially as solicitations. However, brief and impersonal responses with no regard to grammar or punctuation can send a negative message to the recipient. Brevity has never been my problem, but if you are like me and composing emails on small mobile screens with stubby fingers, or constantly being misunderstood by Siri, putting forth this effort on mobile devices can be frustrating. For this reason, I suggest including a signature on mobile replies apologizing for "brevity and tie-pohs".
In the end, just keep in mind that emails are professional business correspondences, so they should be treated as such. Simply learn to say more with less.
2. Resisting lists
Email is probably the best way to stay informed. From group emails about projects to conversations with clients to e-newsletters, I have always used these, even if briefly, to stay atop of current events and business. While these emails may crowd your inbox, the value in the information they deliver should not be discounted.
Like many other suggestions, I do recommend that you not oversubscribe to newsletters and ask to be excluded from mundane office correspondences, such as who ate the last of the cream cheese in the break room. Focus on the topic and emails that are pertinent to your business and your career, and take some time to review the information that they deliver.
3. Using folders and filters
I used to sort my email into folders, at least 50 at one point, and I would have countless filters that sent emails from specific senders or about certain topics to these folders. Sure, it was a great way to stay organized, but the truth is, moving hundreds of unread emails from one folder simply created tens of unread emails in hundreds of folders. At some point, you still have to read them.
Instead, I deal with the emails as they come in, and instead of a quick decision about what folder to file them in, my decision is whether to keep them. If the answer is no, I delete it, otherwise I answer priority emails right away and clear out the rest at the end of the day.
4. Designating time for email
I have read about and even tried to set aside specific times for email consumption. Unfortunately, with a mobile phone in hand, this is almost impossible. For starters, I prefer to be reached by email (or text, Snapchat or other instant messaging services) rather than phone, and most people I correspond with know this. So important requests are sent by email and often do not have the luxury of waiting until I sit for lunch to check email (something else I have been told not to do but find impossible to avoid).
Instead, make it a habit to spend no more than a few minutes in your inbox every time you check. Learn to recognize the important emails and resist the urge to immediately engage in e-newsletters and emails from your fantasy football league group. They can wait until later (unless it is serious trash talk).
5. Using auto-reply
I have in the past applied advice to set auto-reply to my email indicating that I have received the sender's email and would reply soon. It was a nice idea, but it had two problems. First, it was clearly an impersonal automated email, which senders would receive each time they sent an email, something I personally find to be annoying. Second, I have found that auto-replies were also sent to spam emails, notifying the spam sender that they have a valid email address. I have noticed that when using auto-reply, my instances of spam increase dramatically.
One useful suggestion I received was to include dates you would be out of the office or specific office hours in the signature line of each email you send. Also, using shared calendars with important colleagues and clients will allow them to see your availability instantly.
What do you think? Do you have a shared experience or other tips and resources for managing email more efficiently? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Related: Is There a Future for Email?