Effective email principles for keeping control over your inbox
My inbox is a mess. I’m not maintaining a folder structure, I don’t delete read emails, nor am I putting funky labels on my inbox. I have tons of unread emails in my inbox. Does that make me a bad person? Am I brutally ignoring any email etiquette out there? Well, its’ working perfectly fine for me, and it’s pretty efficient as well. Here is my logic, see if it works for you. If it doesn’t no worries, i’m interested in learning your tricks as well.
Stop emailing, start chatting
First rule, stop using email for most of your interactions. Email is especially evil for short conversation style messaging. Example: “Hey Alex, can you send me a status update on the Jester the Digester project?” – no response – next day. “Hey Alex, short reminder” – no response – end of day 3 “Hey Alex, can you please respond to my email, this is my second follow up?”. Yes, this happens every day to everyone.
Using Slack, Google Chat, MS Teams, or Whatsapp you have the option to just send a short chat message to the other person, and start a conversation. “Yes – working on it, it’ll be there tomorrow” for example.
The challenge is to get everyone to use this technology. Younger people are easy to get onto this, but especially people who grew up with email find it hard to let go of this.
Develop an email routine
I typically check my emails a few times during the day. Typically in the morning when I start working to see if there is something urgent that happened and needs attention. Then during the day, typically in between meetings for a few minutes. I turned off all notifications, sounds, and other distractors.
Most emails I respond to immediately and get them of my list. I just leave them in my inbox, or use a shortkey to archive them in a general archive box.
There are emails that I need to get back to but cannot answer immediately. For example because I need to review a piece of work, and I’ve planned that work for later in the week. Then I flag the email, and once a week I check my flags to ensure I don’t miss any of them.
Write short emails, people don’t read long mails
Most of my email responses are very short – I don’t like to write long emails, as I don’t like to read long emails either. Better to discuss long emails in a meeting face to face. If someone writes a long email, it typically means they don’t agree with something, and want to make a deliberate point. When you respond, you want to make sure you are thorough, so your response will also be long. The result is that both parties probably spend 20 minutes writing something down. Better to just have a 20 min. meeting, and save 20 minutes down the line.
Always respond to people, swiftly
People expect a response to your email, and preferably immediately. But hey, we already covered that. If you want something fast -> use chat, don’t use email.
At the same time, in today’s environment you cannot be a slacker on email. Check your mail regularly, and if possible respond immediately. If you missed a response in day 1, and are responding after 2 days, I typically apologize for the delayed response.
Not responding is considered rude.
Even if you don’t have a response, you can inform the other party that you don’t have an answer, or need a bit more time to sort things out. Also, if you believe the mail is not for you, don’t ignore it, just let the other party know.
I also respond to people when I receive something that was shared with my for my information. For example a good report to read, a link to something interesting. A short thank you as a token of appreciation is always appreciated.
Search works very well
So I don’t put emails in folders. I really consider that a complete waste of time. Like you will be able to find stuff back later, as you remember in which folder you placed something – haha. Ok, perhaps i’m the only one here…
Search is amazing these days. Google is still a lot better than Outlook for their email clients, but both work well. If I need to find something in my mailbox, I use search to find it. You do need to be able to remember some context – like who sent it, when was it, what was the topic – but in most cases it works really well.
Using Search will help you find your stuff much faster against having all these folders with archived emails. A true lifehack.
Don’t read all your emails after returning from your vacation
You are away on vacation for 2 weeks and when you get back in the office there are a few thousand emails waiting for you in your shiny inbox. What do do? Do you take 2 days to read all of them before you get back to being productive, or is there a better way?
The better way is to just ignore these emails.
You were out – your out of office told people you were out. Now you are back, so let them start writing emails again to you. It sounds a bit like being ignorant, but remember the days you were going to all these emails? Most of them were not relevant anymore. You were spending your time just reading and deleting them.
So, the risk is very low, and the benefit of not doing this is that you save at least 1 day, and possibly 2. If there was something important you really needed to read or know about – trust me, people will find you and send it to you again.
Stop sending documents back and forth
Another thing of the past, and will help you keep your inbox clean, is sending documents back and forth. Remember receiving a file like: 02172021_projectX_reviewalex and sending it back as 02182021_projectX_reviewalex_commentseva – – > bad bad bad
This is creating so much waste in your inbox. Google and Microsoft have a beautiful model to work seamlessly together on online documents. Everyone working simultaneously on the same document, viewing each others comments, and expanding on the work someone has put in. Amazing.
These were a few of my tips for a healthy inbox. Is your inbox sick, and needs some attention? I hope these helped you a bit.
Mail Wagon banner image: Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum online exhibit