Ever since it first appeared in 1971, email has become one of the most common means of communication. Every day we send 112.5 BILLION business emails. On average, every user receives 88 messages per day, and sends another 34. It comes as no surprise that one of the most common complaints at work is related to the number of email we get.
Email in the 21st Century
In order to be efficient in dealing with email, a few rules have to be established, on the personal as well as company level.
First of all, it is important to realize email is a way other people use to manage your time. Received messages are not your agenda, they are the agenda of someone else. Very few people are employed for the sole reason of answering email. It is very possible that when dealing with email, you are not actually doing the work your employer pays you to do.
I get mail; therefore I am. Scott Adams
Here are some guidelines that will make your life with email much easier.
Remove all “advanced features” from your email client
I guess you wouldn’t buy a vacuum cleaner that you could also use to drill a hole in a wall and make a smoothie. Probably because it wouldn’t complete none of those tasks better than the tool that is intended for each of them. But at the same time we managed to transform email into a Frankenstein monster used as a communication tool, archive, task manager, notepad,…
If you want to spend as little time as possible with email, strip it of all its “advanced” features and use it only for what it was intended for – sending email messages. That means no categories, flags, stars and filters.
How many times each day does the sound of a newly received email lead you to your inbox? “Just a quick check in case it’s something urgent”? A short interruption like that can be enough to lose focus on the task currently at hand. Research shows we need an average of 23 minutes to refocus on the original task. Do yourself a favor and disable email notifications.
Close the browser tab. Or, if you are using Microsoft Outlook click Options in the Tools menu, go to the Preferences tab and click E-mail Options, and then click Advanced E-mail Options, clear all checkboxes under When new items arrive in my Inbox.
Do not forget about notifications on your smartphone. Disable them all, you will check email when you decide the time is right.
Check email as rarely as possible
Of course the frequency of checking email depends on your situation and work assignments. For most of us it is probably most realistic to check our inbox twice a day. If that is a luxury you can not afford, it might be possible to check email only four times per day? Every hour? Whatever the case might be, check email as rarely as possible and in the meantime focus on tasks with greater added value.
Open each message just once
Have you ever opened your mailbox, look through your letters, bills, postcards and other mail, then put it back into the mailbox? And then check every hour if there’s anything new there. I guess not. Still, it’s what we do every day with email. We read a message, learn what it’s about, decide to deal with it later, mark it as unread and move on to the next message. Now what we’ll have to do is open the same email again, reread it and decide what to do with it. That is why we have to decide what to do with each message the first time we open it. It is good practice not to leave email in your Inbox, but move it into a separate folder, once you’re done with it (“Archive” or “Done”).
Do not organize mail into different folders
If you move messages into various folders, you are ineffective in three ways:
- searching for email: studies have shown that you can find a message faster by using the search function (compared to looking through folders);
- making a decision: you have to decide where to put each message, even if it is a split second decision;
- moving messages: physically moving messages (drag&drop) is not needed and is time wasted.
And no, filters and rules do not solve the problem. In fact, they make it worse – now you have received mail scattered across multiple folders.
Define a process of managing email
- Open your email client.
- Open the oldest email in your Inbox.
- Decide what to do with it.
For each message ask yourself this simple question: “Is it actionable?”. If not, archive or delete it; if it contains information you might need in the future, save the email in a reference folder.
In case the email requires your action at a specific time (such as a meeting), put it on your calendar.
In case other action is required, think “Can I complete this task in under 2 minutes?”. If the answer is “yes”, do it immediately. If not, put the activity on your to-do list, archive the email and move to the next one.
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.Benjamin Franklin
The good news is, you’re not completely on your own when it comes to managing email – there lots of useful tools that can help you be more efficient. To get the best results, you will need to:
Create a folder system
You only need one folder where you will move the messages once you’re done with them. Call it “Archive” or “Done”. You already have “Inbox” and “Trash”, so you’re all set.
Choose an email client
It can be an application on your computer (Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail, Mozilla Thunderbird, etc.) or a web application (Gmail, Outlook Online, etc.).
Recommendation: Microsoft Outlook (PC)
Microsoft Outlook offers you the Quick Steps functionality, which is the main reason for this recommendation. It gives you the possibility to define your own buttons that execute multiple command with a single click. Examples include:
- “Reply and move the original message to Archive”,
- “Mark as read, archive and forward to a colleague”,
- “Mark as read, archive and put the item on the to-do list”.
Alternatives: Gmail (web), Mail (OS X)
Choose a task manager
In order for it to work, your task management system has to be reliable, available and time efficient. It is ideal that your task manager and email client are integrated – that enables you to create a task with a single click (or forwarding a message)
Recommendation: Todoist (PC, OS X, Android, iOS, web)
Todoist is a free application, but does require a subscription to use its more advanced features (like creating tasks from email). It costs 28,99 € per year.
Alternatives: Asana (web, Android, iOS), pen and paper
Set up a reference folder
You will want to store contracts, templates and other information into a separate system, so you can access and find it quickly. Your Inbox is not the right place to store this information, but you still need the option to send it into the system in a fast and simple way (for example by forwarding messages to it). This is where a reference folder comes handy.
Recommendation: Evernote (PC, OS X, Android, iOS, web)
Evernote is one of the most useful apps available, a “digital brain”, trusted by more than 200 million users. It is free, but like with Todoist, you will need an annual subscription of 29,99 € to be able to forward messages to it. Well worth it.
Alternatives: OneNote (PC, OS X, Android, iOS, web)
Time stays long enough for anyone who will use it. Leonardo da Vinci
Emptying the Inbox gives a false sense of achievement. Your goal should be to add value with your work, not going through email. Answering email messages is not being proactive, it is a reaction to someone else’s request.
Each communication channel has its rules, but all of them have the same goal – the exchange of information. That is why it is important to know the advantages and restrictions each type of communication has.
Email should not be a replacement for phone calls and meetings. By sending an email you have to accept that you are not entitled to a response right away – the main benefit of an email is exactly the fact that the recipient can read it when he dedicates time to that type communication. And the same goes for messages you receive yourself… If you do not manager your Inbox, your Inbox will manage you.
We created a short free ebook containing the core principles for effective email management. You can grab it here.