I’ve developed a little tick when I get a peek at someone’s inbox and it’s filled with 1,000+ messages and a severe mix of read and unread messages. When this happens I always wish I had 15 minutes to tinker with their tools and relay all of the information I’ve written below.
This post will address tools for Gmail specifically. Some tools may be available on Outlook as well.
Ditch The Folders, Archive It
I feel like every person who strives for organization has had their hand carefully crafting a system of folders and subfolders that helps tame the wild beast that is email, as I myself did for a solid decade before ditching it. I would meticulously sort all of my emails and keep them in check, but after a while, I realized I almost never would go look for an email by folder and find it any quicker than it would be searching for it. This is especially true when your folder system veers in the direction of “Did I put it in this folder or that folder?” or when the message you are looking for is sitting on the 3rd or 4th page of the folder.
Filter Your Mail
If the idea of leaving any sense of organization behind is worrying you, fear not because I’m still going to recommend you use a few folders and a lot of labels. The best way to do this is automatically through the use of filters. The best place to start with this are the emails that you like to have a copy of but don’t need to look over.
If it’s an automated email from the same email server or with the same phrasing in part of the subject line, add a filter for those emails, have it skip the inbox, mark it read, and toss it in a folder or archive it. If you get emails for a regular and repetitive task, create a filter, skip the inbox and toss in a folder that you’ll get to when you actually sit down to do that type of task. Create a filter for emails you want starred, or for emails you always forward on. Create a filter for messages that should get a template response.
For my work inbox, one of the key ways I use this is to set a filter for emails that were sent to the whole company. These emails may vary in importance, but almost always there is no real action for me to take on those emails. For my personal inbox, I use filters the most for online payments, order, appointment confirmations, etc that really don’t need to be sitting at the top of my inbox next to an email from a family member that requires my full attention.
Here is a full list of the actions you can do for filtered mail:
- Skip The Inbox
- Mark as Read
- Star It
- Apply a label
- Forward it
- Delete it
- Never Send it to Spam
- Send Template
- Always mark it important
- Never Mark it Important
- Categorize it
Keep It Zero
Get your emails out of your inbox. If you can’t take care of an email within that day, pull the task into your task management system. Google offers a great g-suite addition called Tasks, that can allow you to create a task from an email, add more context, and schedule it out on your calendar as well.
Do Email on Your Time
In my experience, most people know that sending an email off to a person, especially one they don’t know very well means they can expect a day or two for a response. In an office, those expectations may not be as forgiving, but you can still work toward an expectation that you’ll check your email 1-3 times per day and that sometimes you will be so engrossed in other work that you just don’t have time to look.
Often we don’t have total control over team communication, but it’s important to try to set those boundaries and work toward giving focused work it’s fair share of your time. Even if you’re role requires you to be very attentive to your inbox, you can still keep a hold of your day, by setting scheduled check-ins between other work.
Value Your Contacts
Email can often feel like this emotionless task that just drains everyone involved and it feels like people are taking more and more of a shift to devaluing their inbox. As basic as this may seem, I think it’s worth saying: respond to your emails and recognize the person on the other end. This doesn’t mean that you should respond to emails from everyone, but if you value the person sending you an email, respond to their email. Let them know you are working on it. Include language that makes it clear you understand their position and how you plan to handle their request.
In all of my efforts to streamline work through automation, the one thing I know that really needs the human touch is communication. When someone is upset or frustrated about the progress of something, sending a rote automated email will hurt the relationship. Waiting a week to respond to an email, even if it did take a week to complete hurts the relationship. And not answering emails at all sends the message that you aren’t reliable and just flat out don’t care about that person’s effort and energy.
But also note that this depends on what type of relationship you want to have with someone emailing you. I personally, don’t want to have any relationship with a cold email I now need to unsubscribe from. I might not be keen on deepening a relationship with a person that might lean on me more heavily than they should. But for the people I need to create and implement ideas with, I want our email communication to be reflective of the relationship I’m building or maintaining with them.