Though an essential communication tool, the sheer volume of emails that we receive is overwhelming. Here are some simple but effective tips that I use to keep my email consumption to the essentials. I have used Gmail ( for personal ) and Outlook ( for work) to illustrate because those are the ones I use, but most modern email softwares provide alternate ways of accomplishing the same task.
Most emails that you receive fall into the following types:
Useless emails: These are the various marketing emails, useless magazine subscriptions that you receive almost everyday, but seldom read. At work this translates to most emails sent to mass distribution lists.
FYI emails: These are the emails on topics that you want to be informed of but do not have any concrete action items or responsibilities associated with them. Such emails usually contain your name in the “CC” list.
Action emails: These emails are directly addressed to you and have some kind of action associated with them. It could be as simple as reading and filing them, a “thank you” or “got it” reply or a elaborate request for tasks that need completion. These are your most important emails.
Focus on the action emails, followed by FYI emails ( as time permits) and completely ignore the rest of them. Unless you happen to be a bottleneck in the flow of things, you should receive only a manageable amount of action emails everyday.
Use email-filters: Use filters to eliminate the “useless emails” and distinguish the FYI vs Action emails. Gmail and Outlook let you filter the incoming messages based on the attributes such as sender, receiver, subject lines, body text etc. Use them to label emails with specific tags of your choice or move them to separate folders. This way your inbox remains free of unwanted clutter letting you focus exclusively on those action emails.
For example, I have a following filters set-up:
@Gmail: Messages sent only to me, Family,Friends, Bills, Travel etc. Gmail lets you use more than one label for a particular email. Example, a email could be labelled as both friends & party or friends & travel. You can even nest labels within one another like bills/cable or bills/cellphone etc.
@Outlook: CC-list ( separates most FYI from Action emails), mass-distribution lists. Outlook even lets you highlight messages sent to you in a different color.
The added advantage of filtering is that, you can then use them to search and easily find the desired emails .
Use different email account for subscriptions: Email is free. So why not use a different email address for your subscriptions ? This way you keep your personal email addresses from getting bombarded with useless junk. If you can avoid those subscriptions in the first place then even better.
Combine multiple personal email accounts: If you have multiple personal email accounts ( @Yahoo or @Gmail or @hotmail), then you can save time by forwarding the emails from one account to another. For example, you can choose to forward all your yahoo emails into your Gmail or viceversa. In Gmail, this can be accomplished in a two different ways: Using Mail Fetcher or Simple auto-forwarding. To use Mail fetcher, the other email provider ( Yahoo in this example) should support the POP (Post Office Access) protocol. If they don’t simply choose to auto-forward emails from one account to another. You should also setup appropriate sender addresses. This lets you reply or send emails from your Gmail account but say, with your yahoo address in the sender field of your email. One note of caution is that the receiver can still see your Gmail address in the email header. However most email clients hide the email header from display unless the receiver explicitly chooses to see them.
Priority Inbox: This is a Gmail only feature that automatically prioritizes your emails for you based on your email reading patterns. Here is a quick video that explains the essence of it.
Track emails that need Follow-up: So far you have seen techniques to zero in on the emails that matter. However once you get to those action emails, you might still not be in a position to take immediate action. For example, you might be scheduled for a meeting in 5 minutes and don’t have sufficient time to respond to it. In such cases mark them for follow and revisit them later.
@Gmail: Tag the email with a ‘follow-up’ label or a label of your choice
@Outlook: you can create a new follow-up folder and move your messages there
When you do have some free time, review the follow-up folder and take the necessary actions. Don’t let it pile up.
Respect others time: Lastly, as much as you value your time, be respectful of others’ time commitments. Keep your messages short and to the point. Organize your email as a list of points whenever possible. Provide meaningful subject lines in the email. This will not only help the receiver, but will also help you easily search your emails in the future.