Email… Some of us love it, some of us hate it.
For some people, email is an absolute nightmare and a chore to deal with. Usually, this is due to a combination of 1) being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of messages received, and 2) not having clear processes or systems that help you to manage your email.
Personally, I don’t mind dealing with email, mainly because I’ve managed to make it a relatively stress-free activity.
In this article (and video), I’d like to share some email best practices that have helped me to keep on top of my email. If you’re someone who’s drowning in their inbox, keep reading…
Don't want to read this post? Listen to the podcast or watch the video instead:
It doesn’t really matter which email client you use. Apple Mail, Gmail, Outlook. They all have their pros and cons. In this post, I’m going to share some of the principles behind how to manage your email and mention a few of the lesser-known tools that can help you along the way.9 Email management tips to help you save time: 1. When to do email 2. Reduce inbox overwhelm 3. Managing tasks 4. Dealing with spam 5. Don't forget to archive 6. Following up 7. Using templates 8. Don't waste time with folders 9. Snooze you loseClick To Tweet
1. When to deal with email (schedule time for it)
First things first, when should you deal with email? There are a few schools of thought here… Some people say you should deal with your email first thing. Others say you should work on an important task first and come back to email later in the day.
The truth is, there’s no right answer here. Everyone’s work is different and we all have different preferences. So, do what works for you.
Personally, I deal with email first thing. Mainly because most of my clients are in the US and being in New Zealand means when I wake up, the US is about halfway through their day and I like to respond to any important issues from clients.
Whatever you decide, I recommend blocking out some time on your calendar to deal with email. I usually take about an hour in the morning to clear my inbox and follow up with any leads that need chasing. Setting aside the time like this helps me to clearly dedicate some time to email but then when I’m done, it helps me to move on to my actual work without getting pulled back into my inbox throughout the day. I’ll often still check my email during pockets of free time but the hour in the morning is the time I’ve set to deal with the bulk of my inbox.
2. How to deal with email overwhelm
Email overwhelm is probably the most common email issue I see knowledge workers dealing with.
To deal with overwhelm, you can either 1) reduce the amount of email you’re receiving (dealing with the problem at the source), or 2) find a way to filter through the noise to get to your most important messages.
You can reduce the volume of email you receive by unsubscribing from newsletters you don’t read, turning off email alerts for the services you use or by putting alternatives in place. For example, if you get a lot of customer support emails, maybe you can create an FAQ or knowledge base that answers people’s questions for them.
In terms of filtering email and getting to your most important message, I can’t recommend SaneBox strongly enough. This is the #1 service I recommend to clients when I see they’re drowning in email. Just last week I was talking to a client who’s constantly being emailed by his law clients, his team and other lawyers. I told him to sign up to SaneBox which would filter his important messages for him. SaneBox puts everything that it thinks isn’t important into a folder called SaneLater. This is stuff that falls into the category of ‘good to know’ but isn’t super important to deal with right now. Meanwhile, important messages get through to your main inbox. Simply by letting SaneBox sort his email, he was able to get to his most important messages right away and deal with the lower priority stuff in SaneLater… later.
I’ve said this before but SaneBox has this incredible ability to identify what’s important. It’s like having an assistant is sorting your email for you.
3. Get your tasks out of your email
Repeat after me – Your inbox is not a task list.
If you need to take future action on an email, I recommend getting the message out of your inbox and putting it into some kind of task manager like Asana, Todoist or Basecamp. Do NOT leave it in your inbox.
I use Asana which means I can forward emails to firstname.lastname@example.org to add the email to my task list. They also have handy extensions for Gmail and Outlook that help you to create tasks right from your inbox.
Email is a communication tool and is really not ideal for task management. By adding emails to a task list, you can schedule a time to come back to it later when the time is right.
When you’ve sorted the message into your task list, don’t forget to archive the message from your inbox.
4. Dealing with spam and unwanted emails
Unfortunately, in this day and age, it’s impossible to avoid email spam. By which I mean actual spam which most people providers are pretty good at filtering out. But also the unsolicited emails we receive from people trying to sell us stuff.
I’ll often go into my inbox to find that a lazy salesperson has added me to an automated sequence of emails trying to reach out to me or sell me something. I can tell it’s automated because I can see the ‘Unsubscribe’ link at the bottom of their message.
Your options here are:
- Manually unsubscribing from their list. This is an okay option but they still have my email if they ever switch to new tools. Also, some providers make it really hard to unsubscribe. You have to checkboxes and sometimes even confirm the address you’d like to unsubscribe. Unsubscribing from a sender you don’t recognise can even open you up to future spam newsletters.
- Use SaneBox's SaneBlackHole folder. If you use SaneBox, a faster and safer way to unsubscribe is to move the message into the SaneBlackHole folder. This allows you to bypass annoying unsubscribe forms by sending messages from the sender straight to the trash.
5. Don’t forget to archive your email
A simple but often overlooked thing to do with your email is to archive the message when you’ve finished dealing with it.
So once you’ve sent your response, added the message to a task list or maybe you’ve simply read the email and there’s nothing to do… Either way, when you’re done, archive the message.
But what if it’s an ongoing conversation?
Doesn’t matter. Archive it. I’ll tell you how to deal with follow-ups next…
When you do this you start to view your inbox differently. It goes from being a place where all your email lives to a smaller list of messages you’ve recently received that you need to triage and take action on. This feels a lot less overwhelming compared to having a massive list of never-ending emails in your inbox.
6. How to follow up on important conversations
Okay, so you’ve replied to a message but want to make sure you receive a response. If you followed my previous advice, you’ve then archived the conversation even though it’s still going on.
Mailbutler is an extension for Apple Mail and Gmail that allows you to schedule a task to follow up on a thread. When you send the email, you can check a box and set a date for when to follow up. This is okay but it moves the process of following up out of your inbox and onto a task list.
SaneBox has a few nice features that are even better: 1) when you send the email, you can Bcc an address like email@example.com and SaneBox will resurface the message in your inbox if you don’t receive a reply. 2) Or you can use the SaneNoReplies folder to easily find messages you’re yet to receive a response to.
7. Use templates to speed up email responses
This wouldn’t be a complete list of email tips without touching on email templates. My goal with email is to answer as many messages with a template as I can. Naturally, this is impossible, but it’s a nice goal none the less.
A few tools that really help with email template are:
- TextExpander – I’ve talked about TextExpander before and have a few videos on how you can use it to speed up your typing. The nice thing about TextExpander is that it works anywhere you can type text (not just in your email). This also makes it great for storing links, personal information and other shorthand phrases or instructions you frequently find yourself typing.
- Mailbutler – If you’re using Mailbox with Apple Mail or Gmail when you compose a message you can access a list of pre-prepared templates. However, this only works on the desktop and if you’re writing emails on your phone, you won’t have access to your templates (which is why I prefer TextExpander).
The key takeaway here is that if you find yourself saying the same (or similar) things again and again via email, copy your response into a template and next time it’ll be far quicker and easier to respond.
8. Folders are less important than you think
A lot of people feel the path to better email management is through folders and so they sort their email into categories.
The funny thing is that when you actually go to find an email later, more often than not, you search for it (you don't go digging through folders).
I think folders can be useful if you have some email rules that help you to sort your emails. For example, when a subscriber of mine responds to one of my newsletters, these are automatically sent to a ‘Reply’ folder that I usually clear once a day. This is easy to set up as I can use the footer of my newsletters to filter emails.
When you sign up to a service like SaneBox, it comes with loads of optional folders that automatically sort your email:
- SaneLater – Mentioned above, this is where all your less important email goes so that your main inbox is just the important stuff.
- SaneNews – This is where newsletters and promotions emails go. A bit like Gmails ‘Promotions’ tab.
- SaneCC – Emails you're Cc’d on go here. If the sender is using the Cc field correctly, these are the emails that fall into the category of ‘good to know’.
- SaneNoReplies – Mentioned above, this is where emails you’ve sent but haven’t received a reply to are stored. This makes it easy to see who you need to follow up with.
- SaneTomorrow – SaneBox has a series of snooze folders. You can drag emails to these folders to be reminded about them later.
9. Don't snooze too much
Some email tools like Mailbutler, SaneBox and Boomerang have snooze features which allow you to postpone dealing with an email to later. This is great for getting stuff off your plate until a better time.
But, you should proceed with caution!
A potential issue with snoozing emails is that you end up in a “snooze cycle” where you keep pushing messages off and never actually deal with them. This only adds to the email overwhelm issue. Snoozing should be used to postpone a message until you want to deal with it, not as a way to avoid making a decision altogether.
This concludes my list of email tips and tricks. I hope it helps.
If you have any of your own email tips or tools to recommend, please leave me a comment below!