Email is an incredible invention, and one that’s fundamental to the way we live and work. But with the good comes the bad. A 2019 study by Adobe found people spend 209 minutes each day checking their work email – that’s more than three hours! So it should come as no surprise that many of us feel as though we’re drowning in a sea of constant CCs, BCCs, replies and ‘urgent’ enquiries, which is why it’s a good idea to learn how to manage your inbox.
We asked three experts to weigh in and share their secrets to the fine art of email management.
Prosper Taruvinga is an email marketing expert at digital marketing services company Livelong Digital, so he knows a thing or two about overflowing inboxes. His top tip for overcoming email overload? Establish a system where you’re only checking messages during set periods of your workday.
“I look at my email at 9am and 3pm daily,” he says. “So, between the hours of nine and 10, then three and four, all I am focusing on is my mailbox, then throughout the day I don’t check my email. This has changed my life and I encourage people to find a time that works for them. It gives me so much control and eliminates overwhelm.”
Make sure you disable sounds and pop-up notifications to prevent distractions during ‘no email’ hours, then wait to be amazed by your new and improved productivity.
This email management tip comes from Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist, cyberpsychology researcher and founder of Digital Nutrition, a program that teaches digital literacy and healthy technology habits.
“Don’t use your work email address for signing up to random newsletters or making online purchases,” she says. “Have a secondary email for all the junk so you can keep only the most important communication in your primary email account.”
You can easily create a free Gmail or Yahoo email address and use it to subscribe to newsletters and communications from retail stores. Keeping your work emails “clean and lean” will make you more organised and efficient. You’ll also save time and energy, which you can put towards more important tasks.
Email templates make life easier and save you time, says Candice Burningham, CEO and founder of Admin Avenues, an online community for admin professionals. “You may find you’re sending a lot of similar emails,” she writes in her blog. “Set up templates so you don’t have to keep typing the same message repeatedly. This way, you only need to adjust and personalise slightly with each email.”
Another good idea for managing email? Save a few default responses for out-of-office messages. For example, something like “Thanks for your email, I’m currently in a meeting but I’ll respond to you shortly” works brilliantly. With the click of a button you can save a brief message that keeps clients and co-workers in the loop.
It sounds challenging, but Taruvinga swears this email efficiency tip will make a huge difference.
“Aim to spend a minute or less on any one email and aim to act on it once,” he says. “You can do the following: delete, delegate, respond, do or defer. If you can't deal with the email then and there, or delegate it to someone else, then change it into a ‘task’. Mark it as Unread and deal with it at another time that’s allocated for tasks.”
This system trains you to be decisive and pragmatic when it comes to email management. Remember: not every email is urgent and very few require your instant attention and action.
Whether you’re using Gmail, Outlook or another email platform, it pays to investigate the available built-in tools and use these for managing email.
“This might include setting up an email signature that explains your email habits and manages expectations for replies,” says Brewer. “Or use folder systems and train your email client to file information for you.”
Most email platforms allow you to create ‘rules’ and these can help automatically process and sort your emails as soon as they arrive.
Taruvinga recommends this email productivity trick: “I have a CCs folder where every email that I’m not in the ‘To’ field automatically goes. I check it a couple of times a day, but it helps make sure that what ends up in my inbox is something directed to me and requests my immediate attention.”
Similarly, Burningham uses labels with her Gmail to direct her incoming emails. “Labels are a great way to organise and help you keep track [of emails] by allowing you to sort your messages with different tags,” she says. “This helps save you time and makes sure your attention is focused on the most important emails.” There are similar tools for other email systems, such as using folders in Outlook or filters with Yahoo mail.
Does your office use Slack, Signal, Skype or Microsoft Teams? These emerging communication tools are designed for the workplace, offering instant messaging along with file sharing and video/phone calls.
“If you’re playing the ‘Reply All' game, not only are you creating more emails and wasting time, you could also be missing emails in sequence,” says Burningham. “Instead, move these conversations to a chat platform. This is a big one for saving space in your email inbox.”
There are numerous apps, plug-ins and tools you can use to streamline managing emails.
Taruvinga suggests adopting an unsubscribe tool, like Unroll or Leave Me Alone. “These help you unsubscribe in bulk,” he says. “A lot of email that comes in is junk. An unsubscribe tool can help filter out the noise.”
There are also apps that can remove distractions, allowing you to focus on essential work tasks by blocking your access to things like social media and YouTube for a set period of time. “I like Freedom and RescueTime,” says Brewer. “They support you to manage your time and focus, which then has an impact on email management.”
Another option? Invest in email management software like Hiver, which can help you organise a shared inbox, assigning incoming mail to co-workers and tracking their status. And, for word-perfect outbound messages in an instant, try a tool like Grammarly.
Inbox zero is elusive, and requires a rigorous and disciplined approach to email management outside most workers’ capabilities. This strategy involves keeping an empty inbox at all times, with all incoming messages promptly dealt with and deleted, or filed away in folders for future reference.
“Believing in the ideal of inbox zero is a mistake,” says Brewer. “It sets you up for failure because email is an ongoing game of ping-pong.”
Taruvinga agrees, calling inbox zero “unrealistic”. Instead, when it comes to managing email, set yourself achievable goals and make small but effective changes.