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.
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.
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.
Create your personality in a signature
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.
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:
- Save Time with Gmail Email Templates using “Canned Responses”
- Create An Automatic Email Response With Gmail’s New Filter
Do not disturb – switch off notifications
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
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
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.
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 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:
- DOWNLOAD Useful Gmail Shortcuts
- Shortcuts For Gmail: A Useful Extension That Guides You About Keyboard Shortcuts For Your Gmail Account [Chrome]
- Quickly Learn Gmail’s Keyboard Shortcuts With KeyRocket For Gmail
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 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?