10 Tips To Help You Email More Efficiently

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email management cartoon   10 Tips To Help You Email More Efficiently The best advice I have heard about email and email productivity is – don’t answer emails first thing in the morning. It is a bit paradoxical but true that email and productivity are at loggerheads with each other. If we are too obsessed with it, our inbox becomes a massive speed bump on the efficiency highway. But it does not have to be. With the right habits and methods we can tame the beast that lies innocently waiting for us from the instant we wake up. Even in times of social friend lists and 140 character updates, the “elderly” email remains the preferred means of communication, perhaps just neck and neck with SMS.

These tips aren’t meant to take you to the Holy Grail of Inbox Zero, but are meant to introduce slight email habit changes which will hopefully make you email more efficiently. Open inbox.

Act now!

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Your inbox is an assembly line. Process what’s in front of you and ship it. That is to say, your motto from the moment you log on should be read – respond – delete (or archive). A lot of us log-into our email accounts and just read the emails without taking any action. Sooner or later we have to come back to it, and that just means double the work, and double the wasted time. Then, there’s always the risk of missing an important email in the second run. So, it is more efficient to read and respond immediately. Archive read emails, so that the inbox contains the most important and actionable ones.

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Emails aren’t to-dos

Emails can be turned into actionable items with labels as in Gmail, or flags as in Microsoft Outlook. But it is easy to lose them in the clutter of the inbox. It is more efficient to file the important actionable points in a separate place and archive the email for any future reference. You can turn emails into actionable items in two ways:

Use Tasks in Gmail: Bring up the Tasks pane by clicking on the dropdown next to Mail. Tasks is a simple to-do list but a very effective project management tool. Just click and type to add new tasks, set due dates or add notes, and check them off as you’re done. You can boost productivity with shortcut keys. For instance, with Shift+T, you can create a task based on the open message.

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Use a Google Document: You can enable the Create a Document feature in Gmail labs. Open an email. Click on More – Create a document. The email body is automatically copied into the Google Doc. If you have keyboard shortcuts on in Gmail, you can hit G and W to open a blank Google Doc while you are in an email.

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Create your personality in a signature

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Here’s how my official Gmail signature looks like. This was created with WiseStamp; the free account allows you to create two signatures, so I have one for personal emails and one for work. My signature has links to my Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google+ profiles. With a simple signature, I am not only offering my email ID as a contact reference, but others as well where I can be contacted. A profile based signature helps to create a more professional email and acts as a bridge for social networking. You can even promote your work with just an email signature.

Have you heard about templates?

Quite a few emails that land up can be handled with boilerplate responses. Gmail Labs has a feature called Canned Responses which as the name suggests can be used to give instant and standard replies to common emails.

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Activate Canned Responses from Settings – Labs – Canned Responses. Click on Save changes. Compose a new email or a reply, click on the Canned responses button that’s just below the subject line. Your first canned response is set up. You can set up multiple canned responses which can be used as templates for common emails. Mark went into the uses of canned responses in two articles a few years back which remains valid today:

Do not disturb – switch off notifications

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Email efficiency is about what you send out and also what you invite in. Every site you sign into with an email has notifications enabled by default. There’s nothing that’s as much a productivity killer as the constant stream of notifications from Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and their like. Turn them off. Do you need notifications when you visit the sites themselves? Realize that it’s easy to lose focus, and very difficult to gain it back.

Sit down one day…and unsubscribe away

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One of the biggest culprits of email clutter are newsletters, professional subscriptions, and news sources. If you do an audit of all that you have subscribed to, you just might find that most of them are unnecessary. But they have become the forest for which you are missing the trees. Gmail’s Priority Inbox helps to a degree.  But the better way is to manually unsubscribe them. It is time-consuming, but you get a cleaner inbox. You can also manage your subscriptions by using services like – Unroll.me and Swizzle

Ditch the threads

Threaded conversations are great. They make reading email easier, but they also have the habit of turning into a long sometimes unwieldy chain. You might have noticed that most emails usually have the entire conversation tread in the last email sent/received. So, you can keep only that last email and delete the rest that came before it.

Keep It Brief

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One of my pet peeves is the single word responses that say nothing more than an “OK”, or a “Thank You”. Opening and reading them takes away a fraction of a minute and over a busy day, it could add up. Yes, but do keep your emails brief. It helps the sender as well as the receiver. Trim your email so that they address the essentials. Also, structure your mail for better readability. Using bulleted points or well-defined paragraphs helps to scan an email faster. It’s good to remember Guy Kawasaki‘s five-sentence rule –

“All you should do is explain who you are, what you want, why you should get it, and when you need it by.”

And then, the next tip is always sacrosanct.

Subject…subject…subject

In my experience, I have missed important emails. I have also opened emails which seemed important. Both had one thing in common – a badly constructed subject line. It takes a few seconds to think up an intelligent subject line that reflects the message. Again, it helps both the sender and the receiver as it becomes easier to retrieve the email later either with a search or even manually. Do remember – “LOL” is not a subject!

Look ma, no hands!

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Email efficiency unfortunately requires the opposite. Your efficiency will drastically improve if you learn keyboard shortcuts instead of relying on the mouse click. Desktop clients like Outlook and Thunderbird support keyboard shortcuts, and with them it’s easy to breeze through the conversation threads. What about Gmail? These tips should cover it all, and the some more:

 

Emails are perhaps like the kind of partners you don’t want to live with, but also cannot live without. But just like any partner, it can be one for your productivity too. We need to play it right. Email and email management has been a favorite topic of ours here at MakeUseOf.com. You won’t be short of advice, but more than that we are looking forward to yours. Two caveats here – I have based most of this post on Gmail as it is the popular choice, and also I have avoided mentioning the use of folders, labels, and filters, and other more obvious workflow tips.

So, what’s the best tip you got that can help all of us email more efficiently?

Image Credit: cartoons via Shutterstock | if you could just email me via Shutterstock

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54 Comments - Write a Comment

Reply

xbalesx

I agree with processing email immediately. Read, think, respond, review response, send. If you need to gather additional information for your response leave it in the inbox.

I use labels/tags for searching the archive. Keep the inbox clean.

Reply

Kyle MacDonald

I can’t stand when I get in on Monday’s and it is full of emails. I began to create filters in my outlook that would sort out all the emails for me so I can read them and do what I need to do with them accordingly. Best hour I have spent on emails.

Saikat Basu

A full Inbox on Monday mornings is one of the things that color the Morning Blues a deeper shade :) Good advice. Thanks.

Ahmed Khalil

Yes, you right this problem has no solution.
I start organize my inbox but after few days every thing goes back

Reply

Jhon H. Caicedo

Great advice on handling e-mail. I have been using a Firefox/Chrome extension called ActiveInbox (http://www.activeinboxhq.com) which makes easier to keep track of the actionable e-mails by using custom labels (NextAction/Action/Waiting On/Some day), it works with your gmail account.

Saikat Basu

I am not denying that extensions and add-ons can help, but I also find that good old habit changes are the simpler solutions sometimes. The best is probably taking action on emails immediately instead of keeping them around with or without labels. I note the actions in Tasks and move the emails to Archive, thus clearing my inbox and also recording all actionable items in one central place.

Reply

Roehl Curioso

Thanks!! It’s very useful article!!

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nikhil agarwal

I like zero inbox. I use gmail’s filters for different subscriptions and send them directly to already defined labels skipping inbox.
One thing I hate about gmail is recently some mails skips the inbox that are not filtered by me. So I have to constantly check ‘All mails’ section so that I don’t miss any important emails. Does this happens with anyone else or is it only me?

Saikat Basu

That’s strange. By process, all emails should arrive at your inbox first. Could it be that one of your labels is working incorrectly and catching the wrong email?

nikhil agarwal

The labels and filters I have applied are catching only the emails from the specific email addresses. I have no problem with those. But there are emails which sometimes completely skip inbox although they are marked important in gmail’s priority inbox.

Reply

Tug Ricks

I like the new Outlook because it has settings which keeps my inbox pretty tidy. One that I love is where I can keep only the latest email sent from a specified address, which keeps the newsletters and notices down to a minimum.

Saikat Basu

Yes, the new Outlook.com has some pretty good email scrubbing features. I wish Gmail had those too. Who knows, they just might implement it sooner than later.

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Rob Hindle

In the section about using the task list you write “For instance, with Shift+T, you can create a task based on the open message”. When I press shift-T I get an upper case letter T
I experimented with CTRL-T, WindowsKey-T ALT-T no luck, what am I missing?

Reply

Petey Pabler

I am an admin for our exchange server at work. I say you are right on Saikat, you have to change the user, not just the perks. Outlook 2010 has so many features to combat users such as the ones explained, but without changing their gameplan, they still drown in their inbox. We cap users to a 1GB account (Including Deleted and Sent folders) We email them constantly saying their boxes need to be cleaned up or their email will fail. Instead of cleaning up their inbox, they create ruled to BLOCK emails sent from the Exchange Server!!! This obviously solves nothing…It is the person that needs to change and not the programs (to an extent, I really like some of the Gmail/Outlook features)

Saikat Basu

Your feedback reminds me of the way we use roads. As long as the government keeps building super-wide roads and highways we will continue to buy and use cars without using more fuel-efficient services like public transport or even car pools. It is strange, but sometimes efficiency comes only with constraints.

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Muhammad Ahmad

Your Unsubscribe away tip helped me a lot to get rid of lot of spam.

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Patrick

Great article, Saikat. I like how you present the information. Some of your tips I was already aware of, but most are new to me. I used Google docs in the beginning but never truly exploited its potential, which has grown since those early days.

Thank you!

Reply

R. Max Wideman

Good advice, but . . .
What about all those Mac users who use Apple’s Mail?

Reply

0vigia

just start by using mutt or alpine and taskwarrior :D and you’ll be fine!

Reply

Charles Spitaleri

A very simple convention I use with co-workers is using a prefix asterisk in the subject line:

i.e. *The data files are in my folder on the network drive

The asterisk indicates that the subject line is the response and the body of the email is empty. This allows you to see the response in your inbox list without actually opening it. We originally did this back when mobile email took a long time to download – so we would just have the phone fetch the headers.

While I agree that single word responses can be annoying, but they are much more tolerable when you can see it in the subject line in your inbox without having to open it.

Saikat Basu

It works because your co-workers are on the same table with this :) But it is a nice workaround.

Harold J

I also use the initials NFM for “No Further Message” at the end of the subject line to indicate that there is no further response and the email does not need to be opened. Like above everyone needs to be on the same page with it.

Saikat Basu

Hmm…this is something we can implement here at MUO :) A defined set of abbreviations at the beginning of the subject.

Reply

100rami

One address for the important stuff and other for suscriptions etc.

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GrrGrrr

email processing is very important. it we don’t have a good client- it makes our life like hell.

also a proper subject is very important, and often found missing.

In my case, in most of the cases I try to change the subject before forwarding or replying back to the email to have it make sense to the receivers.

Reply

Freecycle Me

My little thought for those who do use Gmail is that you are able to use multiple variants of one email address. IE a single address of say email@gmail.com can also receive mail addressed to email@gmail.com, e.mail@gmail.com, somethingelse+email@gmail.com. Therefore you can sign up on websites as makeuseof+email@gmail.com, colacompetition+email@gmail.com or mywebsearch+email@gmail.com. This will then mean that you should get mail only from that company coming to that email address. If you get spam from one of these email addresses, you know that they have either had their email database compromised or the site you signed up to was dodgy. You can then filter into the trash all future emails addressed to that specific address but still keep your main address the same and not get so spammed.

or another take is you can have all your friends email e.mail@gmail.com and businesses em.ail@gmail.com, and unknown sites e.m.a.i.l@gmail.com as an example then you again have an idea where the mails have originated.

Hope this idea helps. I have informed many a site that their email systems have at sometime been compromised. PS if you still want to stay with a site you have registered with, once you have informed them, change you registered email on that site to something else, e.g. makeuseof2+email@gmail.com

Saikat Basu

Yes, setting up aliases is another good advice. Thanks.

Reply

Freecycle Me

Sorry that looks horrible but the comment submission has taken out my paragraphs. I hope it is readable enough

Reply

chris w

install freePOPs

it allows you to use any web based email site ie.hotmail,gmail, etc..

with any email program..

works on pc or mac

cheers

Reply

Ellen Odza

Good advice – thanks. My inbox always seems to be cluttered up with stuff no matter what I do. I need to take some time to DELETE DELETE DELETE and then follow your suggestions!

Saikat Basu

Block everything else…close the door, and then go on a cleaning binge :) Oh yes, put a nice song on the speakers!

Reply

webcurd

Linkedin is one of the key site for professionals where if you subscribe for group you start receiving emails for every comment made by members which is frustrating sometimes !!! I will try to implement your suggestion for few groups :)

Saikat Basu

LinkedIn is one of the better sites when it comes to email subscription management. There are a whole lot of options you can set. Select the type of messages you want to receive. Opt for the weekly digest email in case you don’t want to receive pesky emails everyday. You can set the frequency of email you want to receive too. So, LinkedIn is very friendly in that sense.

Reply

Graham

good stuff
Rules/Filters for filing are the most useful bit.
I’ve known some people who schedule the first and last 30 mins of their day for email, unless it’s marked important, but then people will usually call!

Saikat Basu

Checking email four times a day is usually a thumb rule, but of course, it will vary from person to person and their email usage.

Reply

Stephen Bozzone

Remeber the 4D’s

Delete it
Do it
Delegate it
Defer it

Saikat Basu

Couldn’t have put it better myself. This rule is applicable for every singe action including email :)

Reply

Saurabh Singh

Very real info. I never knew these options as i use gmail daily and i have loads of emails which i want to get rid of.

Reply

Mike Monty

We help companies with email marketing with our squeeze page software at http://HowToSqueezePage.net.

Easily, one of the biggest problems for small companies is long emails to the customers. As you said “Keep It Brief!” is the way to go. Far too many try to explain every product feature in one email.

Mike

Reply

suvadip mondal

“The best advice I have heard about email and email productivity is – don’t answer emails first thing in the morning.” try to understand this. this is to those who always give reply to every email.especially to teens
:-)

Saikat Basu

Do they? I think teens were more interested in Facebook and SMS :)

Reply

Isidoro Lopez

Very interesting article. I use rules and folders

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Ahmed Khalil

why all the artical consentarte on Gmail only, while most of us usually have outlook for business mails

Saikat Basu

All the points are equally applicable for whichever client you use. The article has more to do with habits rather than tools.

Ahmed Khalil

May be you right at this point but the examples was only on Gmail. i do not have any problem with it , actually i use it for my personal mails but foe work you know Outlook is the famous

Reply

janet

I am already a believer of everything you write, and have been for some time. This man is a guru, so listen intently of what he speaks.

Reply

Jim Spencer

Wow Guys,
I have needed something to help me in my archiving! I have email going back 10 years! Thanks for a great post!

Reply

Shmuel Mendelsohn

I am the king of the procrastinators, and if I don’t take care of an email right away, it will all to often become forgotten! I do agree that it is better not to go through them first thing in the morning.

Reply

Guy McDowell

My greatest e-mail reduction tool is…the phone.

If I require immediate action, quick info or have something to tell someone that might seem to formal in an e-mail, I pick up the phone.

E-mail should never be used for urgent situations. It’s too unreliable. If I don’t think something is worth a phone call, then it might become an e-mail.

Saikat Basu

Absolutely. I just tweak it a bit and send a SMS first, so as to not catch them in an inconvenient moment. Ok Guy, then I will be waiting for your phone call :)

Reply

Madison Mitschke

You make a lot of good points, however it’s not always realistic to turn off notifications or unsubscribe from newsletters. Community managers need to know what’s going on with their social media accounts without being logged in all the time and some people can’t live with the idea of missing out on that 2 for 1 deal. However it’s true, no one wants all these emails cluttering up their inbox.

This is the problem we try to help solve at SquadMail (www.squadmail.com). With SquadMail you can create email folders and share them with anyone. Think Dropbox for email. Each folder has its own email address, so you can sign up for newsletters with this email address and have all those emails skip your inbox completely. Give us a try!

Saikat Basu

Thanks for dropping by. Your product definitely looks interesting. It kind of reminded me of an Exchange Server Public Folder with an e-mail address so that all e-mails can be directed to the folder from anywhere for a collaborative team :) SquadMail seems like an elegant solution for tackling incessant newsletters and other subscribed information. Do you plan to keep it free for some time or introduce stepped up payment plans?

Madison Mitschke

We do plan to introduce pricing sometime down the road but our goal is to always have a free version of SquadMail available to our users. :)

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