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How to Practice Productive Email Management

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Got email? If you communicate in the modern age, it’s a virtual certainty you do. And depending on the type of work you do, and the types of people you correspond with, you just might be one of the lucky ones who receives lots of email. Emailing remains a highly effective mode of business and personal communication, but if we aren’t careful the digital inbox can become a productivity drain. So today we’re covering tips and tricks for productive email management. Let’s begin with why this is so important.

There’s a reason over 370 billion emails are sent each day worldwide. Email is a quick and concise communication platform for sharing information and furthering important dialogue. But to capitalize on this productivity tool, users must employ firm boundaries. To remain in control of your time and energy, you must establish a plan for receiving and processing your email communication. This begins by turning off notifications and setting up specific times in the day to check email.

Who’s In Charge?

Do you check your email first thing in the morning? If you do, how often does this change the trajectory of your planned activity? Here’s another question: Do you have notifications set to alert you when an email arrives in your inbox? If you answered “yes”, has an incoming email ever taken you off course from important work in progress or has this otherwise derailed your well-intentioned time management? Email should be a tool for greater productivity. It should not limit your ability to be productive.

Be Your Own Gatekeeper

You’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to email. Take advantage of the inherent control you have being the receiver of email messages. Beyond establishing times to check your digital inbox, you can organize how things land in it. With some upfront planning, you can speed up the time it takes to process incoming email and ensure you address the most pressing communication first. Collectively, we’ll call this message filtering, and it’s an effective proactive approach to productive email management.

Message Filtering

Message filtering can take several forms. But in any form, it should be a function of your needs aligned with the types of communication you receive. Effective message filtering will be specific to the way you work and the type of work you do. It might entail setting up specific folders to capture emails by topic or by sender. It could be assigning flags for certain topics or senders. Or, to ensure an urgent email does breach your otherwise silenced email notification status, it might involve setting up an audible alert for communication from a specific sender.

As you begin to set up your messaging filtering, you might consider:

  • who sends you regular communication
  • who or what requires priority
  • what topics, people or subjects naturally fit together

For some people, message filtering will be fluid; it will move with projects or seasons. For parents, it might be tied to children’s school or sports activity. Flags might be all some need to manage email. Others may exclusively use folders, or a combination of flags and folders. Try a version of message filtering out. Nothing is written in stone. Tweak the system as you go, keeping in mind that the goal is to make the processing of email as efficient as possible. Your filtering should save you time and increase your output.

If you use MicroSoft Outlook, visit the Rules Wizard under the Tools menu. For other email programs, you’ll find filtering options under “email rules” or “email filters” or something similar. A simple Google search should yield solid information for email rule setting guidelines and instructions for specific platforms, if the help menu alone doesn’t deliver what you need.

Productive Processing

Now, let’s say you’ve arrived at your designated time to process email. You open your inbox. If you’ve established a system for flagging specific emails from people or topics, you can proceed with what you’ve determined to be most relevant or pressing. Otherwise, take a quick scan of what has come in to determine what needs your attention first. If you’ve set up folders, you can begin in the folder you deem the priority, and go from there to your general inbox.

As you process email, your course of action should be one of the following four:

1. Review and Delete

Review the contents of the email, take any needed action, then delete it, after saving any important attachments. Never use email to store important documents. If you anticipate needing an attachment in an email, save the attachment within your digital filing system. Keep in mind that some emails serve as a summary for information that is also stored elsewhere in perpetuity. If the purpose of the email is to review something that is also banked digitally for future reference, you don’t need to keep the email.

Technically, for some of us, this “review and delete” action might be better termed “scan” and delete. Sometimes we find we’ve been unnecessarily copied on an email. If a quick scan of the email content confirms this, delete the email. And if appropriate, you might ask the sender to remove you from future similar emails. If you’re hesitant to let go of being copied and/or anticipate your needing access to the communication in the future, establish a folder for the topic or group dialogue and store the email there. (More on folders below.)

The goal should be to touch on the email once and take one of these four actions we’re discussing. If you keep it in your inbox, you’ll be navigating around it or revisiting it again and again it in the future. That is a productivity drag.

2. Respond Using the Two Minute Rule

Generally speaking, if you can respond or act on the email within two minutes, you should proceed during your allotted email processing time. If what is required of you will take more than two minutes, you should plan to come back to it. This might entail slotting a new task on your calendar or marking the email for follow-up during a time already established for a specific task or project. But once you’ve taken action, delete the email. If you’re waiting to take action on the email, establish and use a system to denote the status of the email. This keeps your inbox tidy and efficient.

3. Properly Manage as You Wait on Someone or Something

If you’re waiting on someone or something before taking action on an email, don’t just leave it sitting where other newer email will land. Establish a system for managing email communication you have processed but cannot delete. Like the messaging filter system, your inbox management system will be specific to you. You might choose to flag emails, choosing colors for various projects or senders. You might also set a timer for follow-up. Files work well, too, especially if you receive a high volume of email.

Try Color Coding Your Messages

Color coding is another effective tool to use when you know you’ll need to come back to an email communication. This is not flag color coding; it’s changing the color of the message within the inbox. For some, this visual is preferable to flags. Mac users can change the email by putting your curser on the email and clicking the color wheel in your toolbar at the top of the page.  Select the color and close the box. You might color-code for projects or people or even email status, i.e. red for “action items” and yellow for “waiting on a response”. Try this out. Color coding messages creates a clear visual for your next steps.

The key is to not simply rely on something sitting in the inbox to trigger your action down the road. New email will be coming in and could crowd out this older email. Also, without a system, you’ll find yourself reprocessing each email each time you go into the inbox. Establish a system for email that you’ll be revisiting so you only revisit when it’s time to take action.

4. File for Future Reference

Finally, there may be some emails you wish to retain and this is where the smart folder system works its magic. Set up a smart system of email folders. What works for you will be specific to your daily endeavors and interactions. For example, you may choose to set up folders for individual clients, designated workgroups or various family members. You might organize your folders by topic, activity or month. These are just examples and the options are endless. As you consider your strategy, the appropriate folders will emerge.

Keep in mind, you don’t want to save everything. That will just create digital clutter. Any important attachments should be retained outside of the email platform, within your digital filing system. And remember that accessing readily available digital archives is much more efficient than wading back through old email folders.

Personalized Systems Enable Productive Email Management

Electronic communication is a way of modern life and business. Productive email management is paramount to your personal and professional productivity. Set aside some time to personalize your systems for both receiving and processing electronic communication. You can leverage this effective communication tool without it sacrificing your full potential.

Sara Genrich & Nancy Kruschke, founders of Productivity Training Academy, came together with the vision of creating practical, results-driven online on-demand courses for time management, productivity and technology training.  With over 50 years of combined productivity experience, Sara and Nancy’s knowledge, skills and talents illuminate valuable paths to business gain, serving as an effective catalyst for positive change.

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