Life revolves around communication and literally nothing gets accomplished without it. Email is a communication tool meant to make your life easier. Instead of having to type up a letter or try to catch someone on the phone or in person, you can quickly type a few lines and be over it.
But email can also be a significant time sink. This typically happens when it is used in the wrong way. Many people send you emails you don’t need, with subject lines that don’t reflect the content, and in more words than necessary. But it can also be your own fault, for example if you don’t process emails right or abuse your inbox as a To Do or reading list. Fact is, you can get through your emails faster by improving your habits and rigorously adopting a few key email efficiency tips.
Schedule Email Time
If you dread tending to your emails or if you regularly spend way too much time clearing your inbox, try committing to a schedule. Some people recommend doing emails for a set time twice a day. Scheduling time is smart because it creates the time frame and space of mind to concentrate on getting the task done. Besides, you will figure out how much time you really spend with emails.
Checking emails only twice a day doesn’t work for everyone. If you need to stay on top of things and check your emails several times throughout the day, give yourself a few minutes every hour in addition to checking and processing emails in the morning and evening. Those short email sprints are an opportunity to respond to urgent emails or respond to an email that you first needed to fetch information for.
The idea is to…
- create a time limit by scheduling email time,
- have the ambition to stay within that limit,
- become quicker, and
- gradually free up time on your schedule.
This mindset helps you focus and become more efficient. Combine that with all the other email efficiency tips in this article and you will soon speed through your emails like never before.
Process Each Email You Open
Every email you open requires you to act in one way or the other. Doing this immediately saves time because you won’t have to deal with that email again. You will also clear your inbox at least once a day, which is a liberating feeling.
For each email you open, act immediately if possible or schedule a task if necessary, then archive or delete the email. Acting immediately can mean that you respond quickly, make a brief phone call, transfer dates to your calendar, add tasks to your To Do list, file emails or any content to read later. Whenever you are not able to respond or act immediately, draft a response and schedule a task to address whatever it is that you need to do. In any case, get all emails out of your inbox.
Note that in Gmail, every email has a unique URL. Now don’t use that to bookmark your emails! Instead, add the link to the respective task on your To Do list or calendar entry. It’s much better than keeping track of those emails in your inbox.
To make the most of your time…
- act on every email you open,
- transfer tasks and dates to your To Do list or calendar and
- add email URLs for reference,
- respond immediately if possible,
- draft a response if needed,
- archive or delete every email you opened and,
- process Drafts folder and Task list once a day.
Filter & Label Emails
Many people keep emails in their inbox because they don’t know of a better way to keep track of them. It contributes to clutter and with time actually makes it harder to find things. In Gmail, you can easily find any email using the powerful search feature. Alternatively, you can label emails to quickly find them if you must keep them in your inbox or sort them into folders to retrieve them later.
Rather than manually sorting emails, you can set up filters to automatically process emails you receive regularly, including notifications, subscriptions, digests, but also emails from specific people. Instead of setting up a new filter for each individual source, create an email alias for types of emails (e.g. forum notifications or newsletter subscriptions) and filter emails based on what email address they are sent to. By directing those emails to their own dedicated folder, they will never clog up your inbox, you won’t waste time processing them, and you can still read them whenever you have time.
The best way to manage your emails is to…
- learn how to search your email,
- label and
- sort emails,
- ideally with automatized filters where possible, and
- make them bypass your inbox if you never need to deal with them immediately.
Reduce Incoming Email
As you start clearing your inbox on a daily basis, you will notice which emails you don’t need. Instead of setting up filters for emails you don’t really want to receive or will never have the time to read, act. This can mean that you unsubscribe from a newsletter you never read, tell a friend not to forward you cartoons anymore, or ask a colleague to only CC you on important emails.
In short, address unnecessary emails, unsubscribe rigorously, and filter to the trash if necessary.
Set An Example: Keep Your Own Emails Clear & Brief
It takes time to compose an elaborate email. And it takes time to read and process it. Save yourself and others time and learn to keep your emails clear and brief.
This starts with a good subject line. Make sure it clearly reflects the content of your email. This becomes easier if you stick to a single subject per email. Finally, keep your email brief. I wouldn’t recommend a one sentence policy, but everyday work emails should be brief. Do the thinking and extract the essence of what you want to communicate before you send.
Your recipients will love your emails if they contain…
- a clear subject line,
- one subject per email,
- key ideas expressed clearly in
- no more than 1-5 sentences.
Use Canned Responses
If you receive a lot of emails that more or less require one and the same response, create a template and set up a canned response. This can save a lot of time and is very easy to do with Gmail. We have dedicated an entire article on how to Email Faster & Better With Canned Responses.
Use Keyboard Shortcuts
Most email programs offer keyboard shortcuts. Gmail for example has shortcuts for responding (a), deleting (SHIFT + 3), or archiving an email (a). We have compiled a PDF summary of useful Gmail Shortcuts here. Note that you might have to enable keyboard shortcuts. Spend a few minutes to learn keyboard shortcuts for your email client of choice, and you will process your emails much faster every day.
Email is a communication tool that should serve you, not control your life. Be clear what you want to achieve with this communication tool, how you want to spend your time, and automate or eliminate anything that stands in between you and processing your email quickly. If done right, clearing your inbox doesn’t need to take a lot of time. And once you have a good routine, you will not worry about not checking your emails for a few hours or a day as you do more important work. You will know your routine will let you plow through a flooded inbox in no time.
Do you have any email processing tips that I have missed?