Emailing has become a central mode of our communication today, both at home and at work. Looking back ten years ago, it’s kind of hard to imagine this. I still remember I got my first PC then and email was a complete novelty. It was 1998 when I first sent out my email. Today, it’s the #1 tool I use to communicate with others (social media and phones coming a close second). What a difference a decade makes .
Email Management = Fake Productivity?
While email is intended to facilitate communication, I suspect it is killing the productivity of many. Do you often find yourself clicking into your inbox absent-mindedly, when you had just checked it only 5 minutes ago? Do you do a lot of email management activities, like searching past mail, sorting, organizing, deleting and the like? Do you spend more time typing/replying emails than getting proper tasks done?
If you answered yes to any of the questions, you are not alone. These applied to me last time. When I first started in my previous brand management job, I spent quite a copious amount of time in emails. Every time I finished clearing my emails, I would feel pretty satisfied with myself. In my mind, I thought the more emails I process/reply to, the more productive I was.
However, I soon realized it was just fake productivity. After I became self-employed, it became apparent that investing time into emails wasn’t doing much. There are several reasons:
- Deferring the real, important work. I hadn’t made any progress in my other, more intensive tasks, such as writing articles, site promotion, relationship building with key contacts. These were often the big rocks or Quadrant 2 tasks – tasks which were important but not urgent. Not only that, checking my mail midway through my work would break away my train of thought for whatever I was doing. When I returned to work, I would need to pick up my thoughts where I left off.
- Deferring the email processing. I wasn’t getting anything much done for my emails either. Most of the time, I would just click around, glance through the new mail, sort through the stuff, then put off the replying to a later time.
- Never an end to the emails. For the emails I do reply, more emails would keep streaming in, like a running tap. I could clear ten mail, but then twenty would come in immediately afterward.
11 Tips To Improve Your Email Management Skills
At the end of the day, email is just a tool for you to get your tasks done. Below are 11 tips to improve your email management:
1. Process your mail once a day
Even though I check my mail several times a day just to be in the loop (in case there’s something weird going on like my site is down, or if there’s an urgent request), I don’t process them right away. I only do so once a day, either at the beginning of the day or in the evenings.
Set aside a daily time slot to process your emails. If you don’t finish in the time slot, continue the next day. Prioritize the more important ones and let go of the rest. (See #2). After I practiced this habit, it raised my productivity tremendously. While I have important/urgent mail which require speedy attention, the world doesn’t end when I defer replying. Seriously, if there’s anything that’s so important that it can’t wait, it will somehow find its way to you. By restricting mail processing to a certain time frame, it has helped me prioritize the 20% important tasks in my life.
If you are in a working-level position where you get a lot of time-sensitive emails, you can still put this into practice. The point is not to let email run over your life. Remember, it’s a tool to help you do your work and not the work itself. Cultivate this as a habit via the 21 Day Trial Program.
2. Prioritize 20% emails; Defer 80% ones
Not all emails are the same. I love the 80/20 rule because it applies to every single area of our lives. Including emails. 80/20 rule is the idea that 20% of inputs are responsible for 80% of the outputs in any situation. Hence, to be effective, we should focus on 20% inputs that lead to 80% outputs. Likewise, we should focus on 20% high value emails that lead to maximum output.
(To read more about 80/20 rule, read my detailed 3-part series on 80/20 Principle.)
My 20% emails are the ones that give me the next breakthrough in my work. They can be media requests, interview spots, networking opportunities, business leads, speaking opportunities, and other things that lead to my 20% business goals. My 20% emails also include people who have invested money into my work, such as 1-1 coaching clients, speaking engagements and readers who bought my book. Last but not least, correspondences with my good friends also fall here. Everything else goes into the 80% mail.
For the 20% emails, I give them significant priority. I usually reply to them immediately (especially if they meet the 1 minute rule in #9); if not I’ll get to them in 1-3 days’ time. For 80% mail, I take a longer time to reply, sometimes not even replying too (see point #4).
3. Have a “Reply by XX Day” folder
File the mail that need your reply in a “Reply by XX Day” folder, where XX is the day of the week. I set aside 3 days every week to reply to emails – Tues, Thu and Sat. This way I’m not pressured to reply immediate whenever I get the mail. I read it, mentally acknowledge it, and think over it until it’s time to reply (an average of 3-8 days from receipt of the mail).
4. Realize you don’t need to reply to every mail
Despite what you think, you don’t need to reply to every mail. Sometimes, no reply after a certain time period can be considered a reply in itself too.
I get a high volume of reader mail, and for a period of time I used to reply to every single mail that came in. It didn’t do anything. I would be spending the whole day just replying mail, and by the end of the day I would be drained out, unable to do any real work. And interestingly, pretty much all the mail I reply to never get a return response of any sort (not even an acknowledgment or thank you), even when I post follow-up questions to further help them. I suspect half the mail don’t get read, and the other half are mail which people send on impulse and replies don’t really matter. Either way, I realized it’s a lot more effective to use the time on more high value tasks, such as working on high value, content-rich books (such as 30DLBL Program), supporting my 1-1 coaching clients, new projects and writing new articles.
Don’t stress too much about replying to every single mail. Reply if it helps, but if the costs of replying don’t outweigh the benefits, then maybe it’s not worth worrying about it. Just let it be and it’ll sort itself out through time.
5. Create template replies if you often send similar replies
If you look through your sent folder, you’ll probably find a trend in things you reply to. The mail I receive on my site can usually be classified in one of the few categories (1) feedback / thank you mail (2) 1-1 coaching (3) requests for book/product reviews (4) speaking inquiries (5) others. For (1) and (2), I use templates which I have written before-hand which I use in my replies. As I reply, I would customize them accordingly to fit the needs of the original mail. This saved me huge amounts of time, compared to in the past when I would type emails from scratch.
6. Read only the emails that are relevant
I subscribe to several newsletters – such as on fitness, self-help, blogging and business, but I don’t read all the mail they send. I don’t delete them either, because I know they have valuable information. Instead, I set gmail to automatically archive them to different labels (folders). Blog mail get archived into the blogging folder, fitness mail get archived into health & fitness folder, and so on. As of now, I have about 30 folders. I only read them when I want to get more information on the topic.
You don’t need to read every single mail that comes in. Pick and select what’s relevant to you.
7. Structure your mail into categories
Folders (or labels, if you use gmail) are there to help you organize your mail.
Firstly, use a relevant naming system to what you’re doing. If your biggest priorities now are (1) book writing project and (2) weight loss, then name your folders as that.
Secondly, use hierarchy structure. first level folders are for the big categories, and second level folders are for sub-categories, and so on. For example, I have “Admin” as a first level folder, and “Back-Up”, “Accounting”, “Accounts”, etc as second level folders. If need be, I have third level folders to further segment them. Gmail has an add-on which lets you use different tier labels (Settings > Labs > Nested Labels)
Using filters (#8) to automatically organize mail into folders works wonders.
8. Use filters
Filters are tools that help you sort out the mail automatically when it gets into your mail. There are 2 basic things are required for a filter – (1) The term to look out for (2) Action to apply if the term is matched. As of now, my gmail has about 20 different filters set up for different email addresses, subject titles, body text and what not. Depending on what filter it is, the mail will be automatically sorted into a respective folder / archived. This minimizes the amount of administrative actions I need to do.
9. Use the 1 minute rule when replying
If it takes within 1 minute to reply, reply to it immediately and archive it. Don’t let it sit in your mail box for ages. It’s going to take even more effort letting it hover around your mind and being constantly reminded that you need to reply. Just make sure you keep to the 1-minute time frame when replying so it does not take more time than needed. This helps me to clear big batch of mail in a short amount of time.
10. Set a limit to the time you spend in the inbox
Beyond the 1 minute rule, limit the overall time you spend in your inbox. The next time you check your mail, time yourself. See how long you take to process, read, reply, and sort through your mail. Then ask yourself how much of that time is well-spent. Chances are, most of that served absolutely no purpose.
At times, you’ll get emails which are alarmingly long. For these emails, scan through, see if there’s anything relevant to you, then process them accordingly. Reply if needed (and use the 1 minute rule); archive it if you don’t plan to reply. If you’re going to reply, don’t feel the need to revert with a lengthy mail just because the person wrote a long mail. The last thing you want is an email exchange of essays, which will inadvertently result in you falling into an email black hole. Log into your inbox, do what you need to do, and get out right after that.
11. (Ruthlessly) Unsubscribe from things you don’t read
In your cruising around the web, you probably sign up for a fair share of newsletters and feeds on impulse which you lose interest in afterward. If you find yourself repeatedly deleting the mail from your subscriptions, it’s a cue that you should just unsubscribe immediately.
Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] 11 Tips To Effective Email Management
This is part of the Cultivate Good Habits Series. Be sure to check out the full series:
- 21 Days To Cultivate Life Transforming Habits
- 21-Day Lifestyle Revamp Program
- 14 Tips To Successfully Cultivate New Habits (exclusive article in Personal Excellence Book, Volume 2)
- Waking Early: 21 Tips To Wake Up Early
- Quitting Soda: 5 Reasons To Quit Drinking Soda (& How To Do It)
- Improve Your Posture: Benefits Of A Good Posture (& 13 Tips To Do It)
- Be TV-Free: 10 Reasons You Should Stop Watching TV
- Being On Time: 17 Tips To Be On Time
- Meditation: 10 Reasons You Should Meditate | How To Meditate in 5 Simple Steps
- Manage Emails Effectively: 11 Simple Tips To Effective Email Management
- Run Barefoot: 10 Reasons You Should Start Running Barefoot
- Weight Loss: 25 Of My Best Weight Loss Tips
- Emotional Eating: How To Stop Emotional Eating (6-part series)
- Better Oral Care: How To Attain Healthier Gums and Teeth – A Simple but Important Guide
Originally posted on June 14, ’09. Updated and republished on Oct 11, ’10.