Guidelines for Effective E-mail Management
Many of our readers are constantly talking about the burden that weighs on their days stemming from an overflowing inbox. Day in and day out they are receiving such a high volume of e-mails that this communication tool becomes too cumbersome to remain effective, and instead begins to border on frustrating. As this mass of mail becomes unmanaged, we are potentially falling behind on our workload.
Not only that, but the longer we leave the mass gathering and collecting countless other additions to the pile of drifting potential, the more difficult it will be to get through when we finally do take on the task of tackling the inbox. So we have put together a post that will hopefully shed some much needed light on this situation in order to assist you in keeping your inbox managed and clear. This way, you have one more area handled to help steer you on as productive a path as possible.
E-mail is a critical tool in and of itself in keeping you in touch and up to date with your co-workers, clients, business partners, etc. So it is vital that we learn to manage our e-mail effectively, so as to not let our business potential waste away in an unread, or worse unresponded to, message. So we will turn for assistance to other tools and tips that you can use to make the most of this communication outlet.
Consider some of our previous articles:
- The Art And Science Of The Email Signature is a post from the Smashing vaults that covers putting together the perfect e-mail signature.
- Best Practices For Bulletproof E-Mail Delivery more help from our archives on getting your e-mail where you need it to go.
Tools to Keep Handy
Now like with any task, there are several tools that you have at your disposal that can assist you in reaching a much more productive place when it comes to your daily business communications. Getting your virtual toolbox packed and ready to go is always the first step in most processes. Dealing with your e-mail is certainly no different. There are various mail clients, apps and plugins to make your mail delivery and management a breeze, if you know where to look to get them all in order. For now, you will only need to look below for a few toolbox favorites from around the community, which most of you are probably already familiar with. But we always want to start at the beginning just in case.
We have broken the tools down into client specific categories for several of the most popular e-mail clients around. Each category has a hand full of helpful client expanding addons and links that will allow for complete customization and maximizing of whichever program you opt for. If your particular mail client is not listed, we apologize.
Please feel free to leave info about it in the comments section below, complete with what you like about it to help us expand on the post!
Xobni saves time searching and managing your email. It automatically creates profiles with all the emails and files you’ve exchanged. Everything you need is a search away.
Outlook Templates You simple have to write and format your text once and then you can insert it in mail messages of any type (HTML, RTF, plain text) repeatedly. QTE keeps all the text parameters and formatting unchanged, which allows you to create lots of various headings, signatures, phrases, or any other text blocks, lines, or words you use frequently in your correspondence.
Organizer shifts your attention from a message centric paradigm to one focused on work. Organizer helps you get organized by defining Projects and Focuses and saving them into the Categories field.
GTD Addon Now you can put David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, used by over half a million people to keep themselves organized; to work for you in Microsoft Outlook and manage your Inbox as well as getting things done on time.
Lightning Allows managing calendars locally or subscribing to network calendars.
ReminderFox displays and manages lists of reminders and ToDo’s. ReminderFox makes sure you remember all of your important dates via easy-to-use lists, alerts, and alarms, right in your browser without the need for a separate calendar program.
Send Later extends the Send Later functionality by bringing up a scheduler for the time when the ‘Send Later’ option is chosen (Ctrl+Shift+Enter is the shortcut). The extension saves the message to draft and monitors the messages in the draft folder, when the chosen time arrives it moves the message to unsent and sends unsent messages.
Quicktext lets you create templates that can be easily inserted into your own emails. Using Thunderbird, Quicktext is the perfect tool to help you quickly answer routine, repetitive emails.
Active Inbox an email tool to manage email in Gmail and Google Apps. Formerly known as GTDInbox and GTDGmail, it has been managing email overload since 2006, regularly serves 15,000 professionals, and has been prominently reviewed at Mozilla and across the Web.
Keyboard Shortcuts is a one page printable cheat sheet.
Gmail Notifier The original notifier for Gmail. Supports checking multiple accounts as well as Gmail Hosted accounts.
Attachment Scanner When you send a message, it checks whether there’s an attachment. If there isn’t, and it looks like you’ve referred to an attachment in the body of your mail (by using a word like attach, attaching, attachment, etc), it gives you a warning.
Letterbox rearranges your Mail.app interface into a three vertical column setup intended to take advantage of your widescreen monitor.
Related Mail shows messages related to the currently viewed message.
All Around Tools
Here are a couple more tools that you can use no matter what mail client you are using.
Zendesk is a great addon for anyone who needs to maintain a virtual help desk for your business, or who gets a lot of site generated mail.
Mailchimp is an online based service that handles e-mail marketing for your business and allows you to setup mailing lists.
Keep Time on Your Side
Once you have all of the proper tools in place to help get you started, another critical element to managing your e-mail, is managing the time that you devote to this important task. Too much time and your productivity begins to slip away from your grasp once again. Too little time, and not only does your productivity dip, but you also risk the overall performance of your business dropping too, as important e-mails requiring action fall through the cracks. This is usually the motivator that keeps people going back and forth to their inbox all day long. Breaking their workflow, and keeping them in a constant state of digression. It is important to note that even though it may feel like this is keeping you one step ahead of the game, it is more than likely keeping you one step behind.
Creativity is often talked about for having a flow to it, and if you are designing or developing, breaking in and out of that mindset to go and check your mail, even possibly reply to one or two, is not a good way to maintain said flow. Your clients and projects deserve your full attention, and most clients will understand you taking time to get back to them, figuring that you are hard at work on their task anyway. So don’t break your flow, instead set yourself a schedule for checking e-mail. Give yourself two or three times during the work day to go in and see if there is anything that needs your immediate attention. And if it is absolutely necessary because you are expecting a particular e-mail that you know you will need to get to right away, use a notification service for a heads up. This way at a glance you can tell if you need to take a break or not.
Quick Tips to Save Time
- Set a schedule and stick to it.
- Use a notification service if it is absolutely necessary.
- In your replies, stay on topic and be as brief as possible.
- Reply in a timely fashion, waiting allows for pile up.
- Have a comprehensive and helpful signature to shave off some time.
One major time saver as well as e-mail management must is keeping your inbox and messages sorted and well organized. This will definitely make wading through your inbox less chaotic and allow you to effectively establish a hierarchy of importance to all of your incoming messages. The easiest way to do this is through the use of folders or tags within whichever mail client you decide to go with. Adding this level of structure to your inbox will give you a key to navigating through it without the unnecessary proverbial roadblocks popping up in your way to slow you down. Especially if you have relegated your e-mail checking to a schedule, then getting in and getting right to the important messages is a high priority to make the most of the time devoted to this essential task.
If you are going to use the folder/tagging method then a couple that you might want to consider, just to get you started, would be a ‘To-Do’, a ‘Waiting On’, and a ‘Working On’ folder or tag. This way at a glance you could decide where you need to focus. On those things that are pressing and you need to get tackled, or following up on a client who you have been waiting to hear back from. Or if you have a project that you are in the middle of, you might need to correspond with someone about it so that is where you might need to focus you efforts for the time being. However you go about it, some method of sorting out your incoming mail will definitely keep things on a more productive track.
Quick Tips to Stay Organized
- Use folders or tags to keep things prioritized.
- No, really use them. Don’t just set them up and then never sort your mail.
- If it won’t take long, go ahead and reply rather than store it.
- Be fluid in your filing. Know that you might have to adjust as you go.
- Once you have folders/tags in place, try to keep your main inbox empty.
Keep Canned Replies
Your incoming mail is not the only area that you can add a little organization to help you stay the course and not get sucked in to losing hours in replying to the messages you have sorted. If you really think about it and examine the e-mails that you are sending out, you can probably distill a large portion of them into categories of responses. If that is the case, you might also find that in a lot of those messages you are saying about the same thing time and again to different people. It happens quite often in business, your conversations with clients and co-workers can often tend to follow somewhat of a pattern. You can make this work in your favor quite easily by setting up some canned responses.
Think of them as communicational templates for responding to messages without having to take the time to type out the same message over and over. By using these templates you simply have to plug in some minor details to the framework you already have established, and you can clear your inbox with relative ease and quickness. Any corner you can cut to help move the e-mail process along is going to keep you from dreading the task and from procrastinating. So keeping these canned responses handy can serve to take a certain amount of the edge off, without compromising that personal attention and touch that your communication requires.
Quick Tips to Using Templates
- Find the areas where you end up saying the same things over and over.
- Do not think of it as a form letter, write as you normally would.
- Always proofread the template when it is filled in to be sure it correctly flows.
- The more general the template the more areas it can cover with slight alterations.
Keep it Professional
When it comes to managing your e-mail, no matter which of the previous bits of advice you choose to follow, if any, one thing to remember is that above all else, be sure that you always keep things professional. Brevity will keep you ahead of the curve and moving along at a smooth pace, but professionalism will actually keep you in business. This is one place that you should never really compromise your standards, otherwise you risk losing that professional edge that your clients and co-workers appreciate alike. A lot is read into your communications beyond just what is written, so you want to be sure that you are being clear and coherent throughout the messages to clients and co-workers.
The tone of your messages is also very important for keeping a professional feel for all of your business back and forths, so you will want to take great care to ensure that the proper tone is being sent. Even if you are dealing with a particularly difficult client or an annoying co-worker, you need to remember that loosing your cool is only going to make things that much worse. So always keep that in mind and take the high road as much as possible when you are communicating from and for your business. If you find that you cannot maintain the correct tone because the message or situation you are replying to has gotten to you too much, then store it and come back to it again when you are more confident in your composure.
Quick Tips to Communicate Professionally
- Keep it clear and readable.
- Always keep the subject line relevant.
- If you cannot be professional in tone, come back later.
- Add recipients last so you do not accidentally send an incomplete message.
Below are just a few more resources on this topic that we have gathered for your convenience. It is up to you if you want the ride to stop here, but if you want the discussion to keep going, check out these posts and the comments section for more.
10 Email Organization Tips is a helpful post from NetManners that will help you keep your e-mail organized.
Five Easy Steps To E-Mail Organization is an article from the Huffington Post that talks about some simple steps to getting your e-mail in order.
Making Your Email Match Your Business Style is an insightful post from Build Internet on syncing your e-mail with the style and tone of your company.