Email can be an overlooked skill, but it’s often apparent when people don’t have control of their inbox. They may use their time inefficiently, miss emails, lose important information or fail to respond to email in a timely manner. According to Adobe’s 2019 email usage survey, U.S. adults spend nearly three and a half hours a day on work email. Email prioritization and inbox organization affects employees, their teams, and their clients, so focusing on good email habits is important for everyone’s success.
It’s important to find techniques to manage your email that work for you. Start by understanding your productivity weaknesses. You may struggle with one or more of the following:
- Capturing (identifying and remembering tasks)
- Filtering (deciding to discard, delegate or do tasks)
- Prioritization (filtering that includes an understanding of urgency and importance)
- Focusing (limiting distractions and interruptions)
- Energy (finding the motivation and making the effort required to complete tasks)
Your process for managing email will also vary depending on your role, with whom you work, and your company’s policies. A successful system will allow you to meet deadlines efficiently and predictably without missing details while maintaining email etiquette standards like timely replies, clear and direct emails and subject lines, and proper tone.
Tackling Your Inbox
Is your inbox overloaded? Tackling a mountain of emails is no easy feat, but some key strategies can make it manageable.
Start by grouping your emails by subject line or by whom it’s from, enabling you to quickly identify and manage entire conversations without having to re-read or dig through emails.
Next, go email-by-email and determine if the message is urgent or important. Urgency implies timeliness, and importance relates to relevance to your role and responsibilities or your company’s goals. Your options for action are simple: you can delete, reply, archive or add it to your to-do list. Reach this verdict quickly – for each email, limit yourself to 30 seconds per decision. When you encounter an unimportant email, delete it. Decluttering reduces stress and streamlines your focus. If you can answer an email in less than a minute, respond to it when you read it. If an email contains information that’s unimportant today but may be vital in the future, file it away.
Now, the remaining emails should represent items on your to-do list. After you take care of anything “on fire,” prioritize the rest of your inbox. Here are some techniques:
- “Eat the Frog.” Mark Twain’s quote loosely says that if you eat a live frog in the morning, nothing worse will happen to you that day. Address the biggest, scariest task on your to-do list first. The rest of your list will seem easier. The more you delay, the more you will dread starting.
- Consider your psychological readiness. Start with one or two items from your list that you would rather do before the first item, allowing you to gain momentum while still prioritizing important tasks. This strategy is iterative, balancing urgency, importance, and readiness.
- Start with the oldest. Respond to emails from the bottom of your inbox up, preventing you from getting “stuck” on an email chain, allowing older emails to sit in your inbox for longer.
While reaching Inbox Zero, the goal of having no emails in your inbox, can be very rewarding and helpful for identifying new tasks, don’t get hung up on it if it’s stressing you out.
Setting Good Habits
Set good habits to prevent email from piling up in the first place. Here are some best practices:
- Set up folders to sort your archived email. Your file structure will be unique based on your position and how you work. Keep your system easy to maintain. Consider creating a folder system based on deadlines, a folder for each of your clients, or a place for emails that need follow-up.
- Minimize how much you check your email. Email is distracting, addictive, and less efficient than other communication. Turn off notifications and schedule regular times to check email to allow for more focused work. Limit the emails you receive by reducing the number of emails you send. Prioritize other communication channels like chat or video calls.
- Set up email templates. Identify the most frequent types of email you send and develop customizable templates, allowing you to quickly reply to emails with less time and effort.
- Set up filters to automatically file incoming mail. Most email platforms have a tool like Outlook Rules, which can filter and file messages based on sender information or subject-line keywords.
- Unsubscribe. Minimize unimportant and irrelevant emails by unsubscribing from listservs you aren’t interested in or turning off social media notifications.
The idea of perfection often gets in the way of good progress. Celebrate any improvement you make toward efficiency and iterate as needed. For continued growth, here are best-practice resources from our blog:
- Making the Most of the Subject Line – January 2021
- PR Best Practices to Avoid Rookie Mistakes – January 2021
- TL;DR: How to Make Your Writing More Readable for Your Colleagues – March 2020
- Email Signatures – What do They Say About You? – January 2020
- Email Etiquette in the Workplace – July 2019