11 Essential Tips to Manage E-mails Effectively

Email

For those of you who were born in the 1980s or earlier (I was born in 1984)… are you amazed at how e-mail has become a central mode of communication today, whether personal or for work?

Well, I am. Back in the 1990s, before the internet boom happened, people hardly used e-mails. I still remember when I got my first PC in 1999 and email was a complete novelty! It was 1998 when I first sent out my email; fast forward today in the early 2010s, it’s the #1 tool I use to communicate with others (with 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 that it is a counter-productive tool sometimes because we spend so much time managing your e-mails!

For example, think of the following instances:

  • Do you sometimes keep clicking into your inbox, even though you just checked it only 5 minutes ago?
  • Do you spend much time managing your e-mails each day, like searching past mail, sorting, organizing, and deleting old mail?
  • Do you often make e-mails your first priority rather than actually getting things done?
  • Are there days where you spend more time in your inbox than doing proper work?

Does any of the above apply to you, even if sometimes? If yes, then you’re not alone, for they applied to me last time. When I started in my first job in the corporate world, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 website going 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 into my work, such as 1-1 coaching clients, speaking engagements and readers who bought my courses and products. 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 have realized it’s a lot more effective to use the time on more high value tasks, such as working on high value and content-rich products (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 things will sort themselves 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, say, (1) writing a book and (2) losing weight, 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.

Here’s my video tutorial sharing how I set up my e-mail filters to achieve inbox zero: 3 Simple Tips To Achieve Inbox Zero Using E-mail Filters [Video Tutorial]

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:

  1. 21 Days To Cultivate Life Transforming Habits
  2. 21-Day Lifestyle Revamp Program
  3. 14 Tips To Successfully Cultivate New Habits (exclusive article in Personal Excellence Book, Volume 2)
  4. Waking Early21 Tips To Wake Up Early
  5. Quitting Soda5 Reasons To Quit Drinking Soda (& How To Do It)
  6. Improve Your PostureBenefits Of A Good Posture (& 13 Tips To Do It)
  7. Be TV-Free: 10 Reasons You Should Stop Watching TV
  8. Being On Time17 Tips To Be On Time
  9. Meditation10 Reasons You Should Meditate | How To Meditate in 5 Simple Steps
  10. Manage Emails Effectively11 Simple Tips To Effective Email Management
  11. Run Barefoot: 10 Reasons You Should Start Running Barefoot
  12. Weight Loss: 25 Of My Best Weight Loss Tips
  13. Emotional EatingHow To Stop Emotional Eating (6-part series)
  14. Better Oral CareHow To Attain Healthier Gums and Teeth – A Simple but Important Guide

Originally posted on June 14, ’09. Updated and republished on Oct 11, ’10.

  • John Hauxwell

    Good article. I have used most of these tips before, but have lapsed recently, thanks for the reminder. :)

    • http://personalexcellence.co/blog/ Celes

      Thanks John :D

  • http://www.lifestrategy360.com Natalie

    Loved the blog post. Email can be such a time drain if not handled correctly. It used to be the phone now its a keyboard:) I’m going to start practicing a few of your tips.

    • http://personalexcellence.co/blog/ Celes

      Thanks Natalie, glad you find it helpful :D

  • Mattj

    All great tips, but for gmail users there is another tip that can add to nested & filtered emails.

    If you go into labs and find “Hide read labels” and enable that, it will automatically hide labels with no new emails in them.

    If you have large amounts of labels, you may need to scroll to see if you have new emails.. This solves this issue by only displaying labels that have new emails.

    It’s also customisable. If you go to manage labels you can set up certain important labels to always display whether they have new emails in them or not.

    It took a bit of fiddling around getting nested labels and hide read labels to work together; but now I have it, I spend most of my time looking at the pretty screen(that’s another issue entirely). I have nothing left to do with my emails but to answer them, ignore or delete.

    I’ve tried a few other enhancements for gmail (including gmails own “priority labels”) and no other system I have :wink: used compares to this setup I have!

    Once all your common emails are filtered, categorised and only new emails are displayed.. that’s it. Close gmail and get back to work or go fishing. hehe :wink:

    • John Hauxwell

      Great tip, I’ll try that one. Thanks

    • http://personalexcellence.co/blog/ Celes

      Great tip, thanks a lot for sharing Mattj :D

    • John Hauxwell

      Tried it out “hide read labels” works like a charm. Much cleaner looking page and I can immediately see which labels contain unread mail. Spot on. :)

  • Robert Smol

    Hi,

    I am not sure about creating Folder structures. I’ve seen colleagues having folders like Customer X, Project X… And then unsure to which folder to move the received email. Even worse, when then searching, they go to many Folders and SubFolders and spend ages looking for mail.

    I prefer the Google way, just archive it and then search 1 (ONE) folder. I follow the same principles in other mail clients.

    • Mattj

      Hi Robert,

      I think you are missing the value of labels as “tags”.

      Don’t think of labels (and even nested labels) as folder structures alone.

      As an example. I freelance for my old company and I also freelance with some of their customers. When people get added to email conversation it’s automatically tagged by company (I could label by specific user name and company and department and role. eg engineer… but that’s just not necessary for my needs right now)

      The point is, by utilising labels in a nested categorised way and as tags (and setting up clever email filters) you can have your email sorted and organised in a logical manner that makes searching a breeze.

      Instead of searching in one big folder for “customer + date + specific topic” and having to weed though inaccurate results; I can cut that down to searching in a customer folder for a “specific topic + date” and make a mental note of which other parties were involved in the email conversation (as there will be multiple colored labels relating to that email conversation) to get to that email faster.

      In fact in that instance, searching by date and topic may narrow down the searches too much, so i’d probably just search by topic and make it only 1-2 words.

      1 click to get to that nested folder (in my current system for high priority folders) and 1-2 words in the search box will usually yield 2-5 results max.

      I’ve previously used outlook with :
      1. no folders (just inbox and sent)
      2. lots of nested folders
      3. in conversation mode (like gmail, but not as good)

      Nothing i’ve used in the past compares to my current system for speed of searching and retrieving information.

      Most of the time I don’t even need to use the search bar or scroll wheel to find what I need. Just cutting down those processes on any system shaves seconds. Now apply that to 10,000 unsorted emails. 8,000 of which aren’t really important anyway.Not fun!

  • Gee

    Good hints! – I thought about the “You don’t need to reply to every mail” point.

    One could say it’s not polite, or not according to CRM rules. But Celes is not a company. She has only 24h a day, and she has to invest her time the best to make her living – as anyone else. And anyway, the people who are writing her should know that she at least glances at their mail. And they should not expect an answer. That is what we often forget: Our words do leave a mark, as long as the message is catched. So don’t care too much about an answer. Just write, if you have something to say. Not least for yourself.

    Gee

    • http://personalexcellence.co/blog/ Celes

      Thanks a lot Gee, that’s very sweet of you to write that :) On that note, I do get to as many mail and messages as I can, but where the question has already been answered in the FAQs (http://personalexcellence.co/contact/) or elsewhere on the site I usually deprioritize them. A sure way to reach out would be to just post at the forums or in the blog comments.

  • http://SourcesOfInsight.com J.D. Meier

    Fake productivity sounds about right :)

    I’ve found the most effective keys are:
    1. Limit what makes it to your inbox … route out what doesn’t belong
    2. Have a way to quickly scan and quickly move mail in a batch-like way
    3. Have a separate place for grabbing the action items

    The worst pattern is to do a paper shuffle and leave actionable things in your inbox. I use either pen and paper or open up notepad and grab the actions from each mail into a simple list. This lets me prioritize without shuffling my inbox and I can always have an empty inbox.

  • http://www.AbundanceTapestry.com Evelyn Lim

    Hello Celes,

    It’s been so long since I chatted with you. Hope all’s well!!!

    I have got thousands of unread emails. Most of which are articles that I have subscribed to. I guess I need to do a cleanup. While I prioritize my mail, I am also accumulating so many that I know that I will never get to. Thanks for your email management tips! They are very helpful.

    Let’s catch up some time when you are available!

    Evelyn

    • http://personalexcellence.co/blog/ Celes

      Hi Evelyn, nice to have you here! Hope all’s well on your end too and would love to catch up when you’re free :D

  • http://www.productivitybits.com/ marlon

    Celes,

    You’re right – email management is not a vocabulary of productivity. Email is basically an inbox that captures tasks that need to be done. If you are spending major time in managing your email, then there is something wrong with that.

    The tips mentioned in this post are sure ways to handle email more effectively.

    -marlon

  • http://www.arinanikitina.com/ arina nikitina

    Done reading. Now, if only I could truly, whole-y practice all these! Wouldn’t it be great?!?!

    So far, I’ve mastered the art of everything written (ahem!) except 1, 6 and 8. Gosh, how do I ever help myself from checking emails TWICE a day. But then, OK… I live in a different time zone, I am eager to get things going after I get replies, ladida… reasons! But really, this should be good since I used to check mail all the time!

    As for #6, I am close to getting it right. Then something so close to home like the current project I am working on or a friend from my hometown. Then I read… But hear this, I do make sure I limit my time. :)

    I have already sought technical assistance on #8. That’s it.

    Well, Celes… ANOTHER GREAT JOB! Keep it up.. Oh, please… don’t write something about “reading books online”. I’d break. LOL!

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  • http://www.google.com Adam Lottes

    I think being organized is very important…when you are organized you work more efficiently. I’m getting rid of a lot of papers around my desk at home and at work by filing them electronically using an online server. I can’t believe how much extra paper I have around that I really don’t need…I found a free version of cloud computing software at http://www.xambox.com. Remember:organization=productivity! Just start filing a few documents every day and in no time, you will be practically clutter free The same applies for email of course! Clean up your inbox!

  • http://www.facebook.com/reese.mitchell Reese Mitchell

    I have gmail, yahoo mail, Hotmail and Outlook. I use them all everyday, but the most effective format for work is Outlook. Here’s why, Outlook lets you combine a lot of time saving features, but I’m only going to talk about mail for this comment.

    First of all I don’t use sub-folders, they just don’t work for me. I send all common emails to folders. I color code all emails from co-workers and contacts I regularly correspond with. All messages send direct to me only have the highest priority color for me that is red. Usually in a business setting mail sent directly to only you has more importance than one sent to a group.

    I set up a hierarchy of who is the most important person and read them first. That is my manager’s admin then my manager and so on and so on. I check my mail first thing in the morning and have alerts sent to me as soon as I get a new mail message and read them as they come in using the same priorities it just wrote about. After the most important folders are cleared I start with messages sent only to me then other people. Next it’s a toss up between important folders and import color coded mail.

    For me the use of sub-folders is not effective. I have a long list of folders but I am consistent in how I name them so I can always find what I want. I have a co-worker who has sub-folders and gets lost looking through her files. She eventually just uses a search option which for me just takes too long.

    I’m not saying my organizational method is the best, but it’s the best for me. Everyone should organize themselves in a way that makes sense to them and is the most effective for them.

    I hope this slant on my organizational style is good for some of your readers.

  • http://www.unifiedinbox.com Andy Moles

    Excellent Tips! Email certainly can be a time drain if not managed properly. Unified Inbox is an excellent solution for managing Emails, and all the other communication channels like Instant Messages, Voice Mails, Snail Mails etc. from one Place.

  • http://www.marketing-blog.biz Heiko

    I love these advices. They make me think how much more effective I could be.

    But then, I am just addicted to habbits. I always give it up and fall back into my old routine – and the, when I am finally fed up with me, I just deleted all mail.

    I feel much better afterward and never ever didi anything happen.

    I am lloking forward to New Year. That’s usually my time to the DEL-thing

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