We live in an information saturated world today where our inboxes are fuller than ever and we receive more emails than before. Digital communication has become the primary way we communicate with anyone, if at all.
With over half the world now using email, it’s unlikely that email will stop being a cornerstone of our lives or work culture for a while.
Yet email is just a tool to get things done, not a measure of our productivity. In this post, I share 7 tips to manage your email effectively.
1. Limit email processing to 2-3 times a day
Two important rules to remember when it comes to email:
- The time you spend outside of email is when you get things done.
- The time you spend at your inbox is when you’re reacting to requests and facilitating stuff in general.
The exception is if email is a direct measurement of your work output (like customer support), or you’re in a management position where you delegate your tasks via email.
(b) is important to the extent that it helps you in (a). The problem starts when you spend countless hours in your inbox thinking that you’re getting things done. You should, as a general rule:
- Not have email alerts turned on. They turn you into a reactional monkey as you get diverted by popups telling you that you got mail. You don’t need to know when people send you mail. Turn them off.
- Not spend more than 5 minutes on email in the morning. Morning is when you have your best energy. Do a quick check if needed, but don’t spend your best morning hours on email as it’ll set the tone for your entire day and nosedive your productivity. Start your mornings with your high impact tasks instead.
- Process your email 2-3X a day. Process meaning to actually sort your emails, read them in depth, and reply. Check emails multiple times a day if your work requires you to be in the close loop of on-the-ground issues, but only process them 2-3X a day. The exception is if an email is urgent and important — reply right away, then get back to your high-impact tasks. I process my mail once a day, sometimes once every 2-3 days, as email is not where I get my most important work done. Your Quadrant 2, high-impact tasks should always be your priority.
2. Prioritize important email (which may not be new)
Not all emails are important. Some are irrelevant. But people tend to recognize what’s new (hence prioritizing and reading new mail first, even replying to them quickly even though there are more important tasks to be done), not what’s important.
Before you jump into your emails, consider their importance. In general, our work mail can be segmented into 3 categories:
- Category A: Your most important emails that will make a big difference in your Q2 goals. This typically makes up 10-20% of your mail.
- Category B: Important but not as important as A. These emails keep things going but will not dramatically change your goals/life. They form the bulk of your mail. This makes up 40-60% of your mail.
- Category C: Unimportant mail. Nice-to-know information, spam, time-wasters. Depending on your work, this makes up 20-30% of your mail.
A similar categorization applies for personal mail. An email from a close friend can be an A mail. An email from someone who has helped you before can be an A mail too. An email from someone who can benefit from your help can also be an A or B mail. It depends on the context.
You want to give extra weight to the A emails, treat B emails as per normal, while ignoring C emails.
10% of my emails fall under A, 60% in B, and 30% in C. I reply to A quickly. With B emails, I reply over time, based on a mental weightage of the time it’d take, urgency, and the time I have to reply. C emails are trashed or archived.
Use different treatment methods for your emails based on importance. If you can do just this, your productivity will skyrocket.
3. Use folders, filters to sort your email
Back in my previous company, I had colleagues who didn’t organize their mail at all — they would just reply and archive their mail into one big folder. While it made getting to emails quick at first, they would spend a lot of time clicking, searching, and re-searching for mail later on. They couldn’t see emails filed by their categories either but had to search for individual mail piece by piece. This problem gets worse over time as the amount of mail you have increases.
Take the time to set up a helpful folder structure and good filters:
a) Folders (or Labels in Gmail). Create a few folders for the big categories, then tier them down with sub-categories. This way you can easily click into a folder/sub-folder to see all the mail on that subject. More on using folders/labels: Gmail | Outlook
b) Email Filters (or Rules in Outlook). An email filter is a logic you set in your email client that automatically sorts new mail as it enters your inbox. Every filter has two parts: (1) the criteria to watch out for in an email, and (2) what your email client should do if the criteria is met. For example:
- If an email is sent from *@paypal.com → Move to Payments folder + Archive (so you don’t even see it in your inbox)
- If an email is sent from firstname.lastname@example.org → Move to Family folder
- If an email has the words “Team Update” in the Subject → Move to Updates folder + Star (to differentiate form others)
- If an email is from a blacklisted address (who keeps sending spam) → Delete (you can also block the person’s address in Gmail)
I have over 40 email filters and they sort my mail automatically, allowing me to get right to reading/replying when I log into my inbox. Whenever I receive emails that match a new pattern (such as when I subscribe to a new service), I’ll create a new filter to file them into the appropriate folder.
What I save here isn’t just the time, but the mental energy from having to think and sort through countless trickles of mail, which I then use for my big tasks.
4. Create templates for common emails
If you have mail that you send over and over, such as instructions to clients or customer replies, create templates to reuse them. Gmail has a Canned Responses feature for this purpose though I don’t find it intuitive — I just save my template responses in Perfect Keyboard (a text substitution tool) and activate each template by typing a hotkey. I have a video tutorial on how to use text substitution tools here.
5. Use an email scheduler
Sometimes I’m quick in replying to emails, but I don’t want a ping-pong effect where I reply to an email, the person replies right away after 10 minutes (and expects a reply), and the email conversation derails into a chat — when all I want to do is get out of my inbox and work on my Q2 tasks.
An email scheduler solves this problem. It’s like an extension for email clients that became popular in recent years and lets you control when you send (and receive) mail. I’m currently using Right Inbox and it works great. If I’ve typed up a message but only want it sent two days later, I do that with Right Inbox. If an email is important but I can’t reply right away and don’t want it to get buried in my inbox, I set it to return to my inbox and appear at the top a week later. If I want to be reminded when someone doesn’t reply after X days, it does that too. You can also send recurring mail with it, though I don’t use this function.
There are tools like MailButler (for Applemail), Send Later (for Outlook), and Boomerang (available for Gmail and Outlook), all sharing similar functions. I haven’t used the first two before. I was using Boomerang but it was quite buggy, so I switched to Right Inbox which has been great so far. All are free for up to a certain number of messages per month.
6. Reduce clutter by preventing it from entering your inbox
The best way to reduce email clutter is to prevent it from getting into your inbox. To do this,
- Unsubscribe from stuff you don’t need. For blogs that you love, keep the email subscription. For blogs that send mail excessively and you don’t really follow anymore, unsubscribe.
- Turn off unwanted notifications. Companies today send us countless notifications to divert our attention back to their services. But we don’t need them. You should use a service only when you want to use it, not when it notifies you. Regain your attention and turn them off.
- Delete unwanted mail with filters. There’ll always be services that don’t let you unsubscribe or companies that abuse their access to your information and don’t let you opt out. Create a filter to automatically delete such mail.
- Send less email. This is a very elusive yet simple rule: if you want to get less mail, send less mail. If you can call and ask the person directly, and at no opportunity cost, do that. If you need to acknowledge receipt, just reply with a very short message like “Got it” or “Okay, thanks! :)” If you have nothing good to add and you’re not required to respond, don’t reply.
- No reply can be a form of reply. Because I get a lot of unsolicited mail via my blog, I’ve learned the importance of giving my attention only to the things I care about. When you reply to something like a negative message or an unsolicited pitch, even if your reply is a “no” and doesn’t require a followup, there’ll always be a percentage of people who reply (a) with more noise/negativity or (b) try to push their luck and insist on more information, more time, more answers, to break into your mental space and get you to buy into their agenda. Protect your mental space by only letting in things you care about in the first place, and of course block addresses that send you unwanted negativity/spam.
7. Keep it short
Brevity is underrated in our attention-starved economy. As Facebook tries whatever it can to grab our monkey mind for another 5 minutes to maximize shareholder value, we can take control of our time and attention by learning to be brief and precise.
In your work mail, be as precise as you can. Keep it short while covering what’s needed, then move on. When your emails are brief, (a) you help others focus on getting things done, (b) you reduce lengthy replies back to you, and (c) people can put their attention where it matters most.
Remember that email is a tool to help you communicate and get things done, not the work itself. Which tips can you apply to be an email master? If you’ve found this article useful, do pass it on to a friend, family, or co-worker — you may well save hours of their time on email each week.
Related article: 6 Tips to Deal with Digital Burnout in Today’s World
Get the manifesto: [Manifesto] 10 Tips To Effective Email Management