Email may be one of the most important means of communication in the modern workplace. Even as more modern means of communication appear, such as WhatsApp or Slack, email has its place cemented in the workplace.
While these alternative means of communication offer an agility that email lacks, email is still the best medium for exchanging long-form work communication that include attachments electronically.
Slack and WhatsApp offer a faster way for disseminating information than email, but they are most suited for sending short messages with maybe an occasional file share.
If you need more details in your communication, with many attached files and a threaded view of a conversation, email is still hard to beat.
Despite these strengths, email is despised by some. One reason that this may be so is that people do not manage their emails properly. In addition, the huge amount of spam that reaches our inbox can bury important information, making it a pain to handle email.
In this post, I will try to outline my email management system. It has enabled me to feel better about my email workflow and get more done.
I follow a very simple system. I treat my email inbox as I would any other inbox, it’s a place where email that hasn’t been “processed” is stored. I use processed in the GTD sense — that is, I use it to refer to email that I haven’t decided what to do with yet.
Once I decide what I will do with my email, it is moved out of my inbox and into an appropriate folder for later handing. I have created a three folder system to handle my email, they are:
- Action Needed
- Waiting for
These are the only three folders I have in my email system. I do have a label for emails that arrive from the dean, but that is an additional label that emails in the above three folders can have. I use this label when I want to filter for emails I received from the dean across all folders.
Whenever I check my email, I read and file my emails into one of these three folders. If an email is of no value to me, I delete it immediately — you will be surprised how many emails fall into this category. The CC option has resulted in a flood of email that is irrelevant to most people.
If an email needs action, I ask myself if I can reply to it in less that 2 mins. If I can, I do so immediately. If I can’t, I move it into my Action Needed folder.
If the email needs action, but I’m not the most suitable person to perform this action, I forward it to the person best suited to respond to it, and then move it into my Waiting For folder. I also add an item to my todo list to check in with the person I’ve delegated the email to at the appropriate time.
If an email contains information that I may need to reference later, I move it into my Reference folder — I also sometimes forward the email into my notes application (Evernote), if it contains information I’ll need to view often.
I do this with every email I receive. After processing my inbox, nothing remains in it. The only emails that remain in my inbox are those that I haven’t performed the above process on yet.
After I’ve done this, I switch to my Action Needed folder and work from that — this includes processing the emails in detail, setting up the appropriate todo list items to guide my processing of the tasks they contain, adding relevant events to my calendar, etc.
Once I’ve completed the work associated with the emails in my Action Needed folder, I either delete them or move them to Reference, depending on whether I would like to refer to them in the future or not.
When I check my email
This is a very controversial topic, with many studies telling you not to check email first thing in the morning. I’ve tried doing that, but I missed several important emails when I did this.
Personally, I check my email in the morning before I go to work. While having my morning tea, or breakfast, I check my email on my phone and categorize emails into their appropriate folders as mentioned in the previous section. I do this so that when I arrive at work, my emails are in the appropriate folders ready to be worked on.
I also usually schedule another email processing period at 12 noon to deal with anything else that has come up. Other than these two time periods, I try not to check my email — this allows me to focus on current work, and not be distracted by incoming notifications. Of course, if I’m lucky enough to finish all the work I need to do before the work day is over, I check my email for any actionable items I can complete before I call it a day.
I’m lucky in that if there is an emergency, the dean, or someone in the dean’s office, will send us a WhatsApp message notifying us. This means I can safely schedule my email checking periods to twice per day without risking missing an emergency. If you need to check your email more often, you can calibrate your system accordingly, but try not to let your day be consumed by email.
I use gmail for most of my email (iCloud and Outlook round out my personal accounts), and it has a very powerful spam filter. I’ve also set up custom filters that automatically move newsletters I don’t want cluttering up my inbox to spam — when I really don’t want to read them, and there is no good unsubscribe option, I just create a filter that deletes them on arrival.
I have noticed though, that emails from a certain important work contact sometimes seem to be misclassified as spam. To avoid missing important email from this contact, I’ve tried to get my email account to classify these messages as “not spam”. Unfortunately, my email accounts insist on classifying his emails as spam for some reason.
So I’ve created a workaround for this, I set up a recurring task on my todo list that tells me to check my spam folder every day when I wake up. I quickly scroll through it, and, if I find email from this contact, move it into my inbox for processing. If I don’t find his emails there, I just empty my spam folder. This has the added benefit of reducing the storage requirements of my spam folder.
That’s it ladies and gents, my email system. By following the steps above, I always know where I can find the emails I need.
For example, instead of having my 5-10 actionable emails buried underneath 100s of none-actionable emails, I can always go to my Action Needed folder and find them.
Similarly, since all my delegated emails are in my Waiting For folder, I always know what I’ve delegated and can regularly check in with the person I’ve delegated the tasks to by checking this folder. Also, it simplifies writing my todo list items, since I can refer to the emails in my Waiting For folder.
For example, assume that I received an email from the library asking me to change the textbook being used for a certain course due to availability issues. I immediately forward this email to the head of the books committee in the department, move the email into my Waiting For folder, and add an item like this to my todo list:
Check in with xyz re books email, Waiting For folder on the 1st of October
That’s it, I will then get a reminder from my todo app on the appropriate date, go into the Waiting For folder on my email client, and send a check in message to the person responsible for this.
Knowing where you can find everything is the core principle of being organized. Following an email system that allows you to immediately determine where the item you are looking for is, will enable you to handle email more efficiently and with less stress. I hope this post inspires you to get your email more organized.