10 Tips To Help You Email More Efficiently

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email more efficientThe 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!

email more efficient

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.

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.

make email more efficient

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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.

make email more efficient

Create your personality in a signature

make email more efficient

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.

manage email more efficiently

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

manage email more efficiently

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

manage email more efficiently

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

make email more efficient

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!

email more efficient

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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Comments (54)
  • 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. :)

  • 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 :)

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.