Get on top of your emails

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Is your email a nightmare? Do you spend too much time doing email? Do you have hundreds of unread emails in your inbox? This blog post will help you.

Despite the rise of social media, email is still by far the most common method of written communication. Radicati’s Email Statistics Report estimates that over 200 billion emails are sent every day. This compares with 23 billion text messages per day, and ‘only’ 500 million tweets per day!

There are less than 5 billion email accounts out there, so on average each email user is sending and receiving 40 emails per day. When I was a programme director I used to get around 150 emails a day. Some of my colleagues got a lot more. Here are my 10 best do’s and don’ts for getting on top of your email.

1. Do look at each email once only

There are basically 4 things you can do with any email: trash it, archive it, action it, or forward it. It should only take a few seconds to decide what to do with an email. Practice your rapid reading skills.

If it is trash, move it to your Trash folder immediately.

If you need to keep it, but it requires no action, move it to your Archive folder.

If you need to take action in response to the email, perhaps you can do it immediately, if it will only take a minute. For example, accept or decline a meeting invitation. Do it now if you can, otherwise create an entry in your todo list. Then move the email to Archive.

If you need to forward the email to someone else, do that, then move it to Archive.

2. Do empty your inbox

Sort your emails by received date & time, with the most recent ones at the top. Then even if you have a huge backlog in your inbox, you will still see the most recent – possibly urgent – ones first.

Most emails have a limited shelf life, so if you are moving backwards in time you will find that less and less of them require you to do anything other than archive or trash them.

After you have gone back a few weeks, most people will have given up on you, so you might as well move all older emails to Archive.

3. Do keep your inbox empty

Inbox is for new email you haven’t read yet. When you have read an email, move it out of your inbox. Otherwise you will find yourself reading the same emails over and over again. Not good.

4. Don’t use lots of folders

If you have lots of folders, you will be for ever hunting through them looking for emails you remember seeing. Don’t do it. Just put all the keepers into Archive. Then you can easily sort them all by date, or by sender, or use the searching and filtering features of your email app.

5. Do forward with respect

Every email in your inbox is a burden, because it is demanding your time and attention. If you forward the email to someone else, you are giving the same burden to that person.

Don’t forward an email to someone unless you are sure they need to see it. And when you do forward one, add a comment so they are clear why you have forwarded it. If you need them to take action, say what you want them to do, by when, and add “For action please” to the start of the subject. If it is just for information, add “For information”, and say why it’s relevant. This will help them when they are scanning their inbox.

If it’s important, talk to them about it as well. Their inbox might be in a worse state than yours!

6. Do use few words

When writing an email, think about its purpose. Write as few words as necessary to achieve that purpose. If you write too many words, people will skip them or trash the whole email. Or they will leave it ‘to read later’ which is not really going to happen. They really mean ‘trash later’.

People can’t see your face when they are reading your email. They don’t know if you are smiling or frowning. They can easily take offence.

Never write an email in anger. Clear the air by talking, face to face if possible, or pick up the phone.

7. Don’t cc your emails

When I was a senior manager, some of my team used to copy me on emails they sent, particularly if they were complaining about something. As if copying me conferred some added authority to their complaint. That made me really mad! Never use cc unless you really have to.

8. Do turn off unwanted email

If you are repeatedly receiving unwanted emails from the same source, add them to your “Spam” filter if you have one. If they have an ‘Unsubscribe’ link at the bottom of the email, use that. (But beware of spammers who exploit ‘unsubscribe’ to get you onto their web site.)

Some email sources have messages you want to see and others you might not. For example, Amazon send you a receipt if you buy something, but they also send you lots of marketing stuff. I contacted their help desk and got them to unsubscribe me from all their marketing emails, but they still send me receipts and information about my orders.

9. Do limit your email time

Some people seem to spend every spare minute doing their emails. That’s no way to live! Allocate some time for looking at your inbox. Perhaps 30 minutes at the beginning of the day, 15 minutes after lunch, and 30 minutes at the end of the day. Go through your emails as quickly as you can, remembering that most email is trash. But just occasionally something vital will arrive. Concentrate so you don’t miss it!

10. Do use a good email app

When I worked for a company I used Outlook, because they paid for it. But now I read my emails on my iPad and iPhone. There are many good email apps, including the built-in one. I like Spark from Readdle, because it has lots of really cool features. You can swipe left to trash, and swipe right to archive. And Spark will automatically filter your emails, using rules set by you. Great!

To manage the actions arising from your emails, use a good todo list manager like TaskAngel. You can try it for free at taskangel.com.

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Andrew Boswell
 

Andrew Boswell is the author of TaskAngel To-do List. He blogs on productivity and time management at taskangel.com.

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