Are you bombarded with a ton of emails every day? Do you find it difficult to find the email you need to act on? Have you wondered how do executives handle large amount of email?
How would it be if all your emails were neatly separated into sections like needing Action, can Wait, awaiting a reply and so on.
In this article, you will learn how to organize email like never before. Keeping track of emails to work on later, following up on emails that did not get a response, accessing an email from the past becomes a breeze. By the usage of folders and mailboxes, you can streamline your emails. Handling even 1000’s of emails every day will be easy. No longer will you have to worry about an email slipping from your attention.
This article is Step 9: ‘Organize your Email: Smart tricks to handle 1000s of emails‘ of the final phase: Transforming into a productive superhuman of the 3 phase transformation into superhuman productivity. You can begin right from step 1 by accessing the index here – 3 Phase Transformation into Living Your Dreams.
- The world of emails
- Organizing email the GTD(Getting Things Done) way
- The logic behind the buckets for Email
- The right approach to divide and conquer your mailbox
The world of emails
In the current world of technology, email forms a crucial part of many interactions. Most of the information exchange happens over emails.
- Is a deal being signed? The parties ask each other to send the proposal first over email.
- Is an employee being promoted? The promotion letter is sent over an email.
- Is a team working across geographies? Updates on tasks are given over email.
The need to organize email
The examples are many which require no further illustration. With so many emails flying around, if you do not work with focus, your mailbox will dictate your day, taking you from one email to another until you hit the end of the day. The situation is similar to being swept by a running river bumping into one rock after another.
In addition, many workplaces use email groups that you are inevitably part of. As a result, you receive a flurry of emails each day. Without organizing your work email into folder you lose control over your mailbox.
It is imperative to have an efficiently organized mailbox to have control over your daily schedule. One must avoid the need of having to check emails every now and then or attend to every email when a notification pops up.
When you read “efficiently organized mailbox”, what ran through your mind? Do you think the perfect mailbox is where all emails are read and all useless emails are deleted? If so, you are missing out on a lot more elements to simplify your working model with email.
Common Problems of Your Mailbox
If your work on a project where tasks can come over email, you must be facing an email overload already. Here are the most common problems you face with your mailbox:
- You read an email and decide to work on it later. You forget the email until some consequence follows. The reaction at that point is “Oh shit, I totally forgot.”
- You send an email that requires somebody else’s reply to proceed. The other person forgets to reply. Due to the lack of a reply, you do not have a tab on the email either and the email is lost forever.
- You send an email that requires a reply. You would like to follow up if the person does not reply but you forget to remind yourself to follow up.
- You receive an informational email with large but useful content to read. You do not have the time to read it now and forget to read it later.
- An email has an action item that is not feasible under the current circumstances. You intend to revisit it 2 months later, but by then you have forever forgotten it.
How organized is your email currently?
Here are a few questions to help you evaluate how optimized your working style with email is:
- An email needs your action, but the action needs roughly an hour of effort. You decide to work on it later, how do you keep a track of it?
- You have sent an email asking for some information from a co-worker. How do you remind yourself in case the co-worker forgets to get back to you?
- You receive an email that requires no action but contains useful information you might have to look back to refer to in the future. How do you find it?
- An email needs your reply, however, you need to discuss the email with a colleague before you respond. How do you remind yourself about having an email pending your response?
- Your boss sends you an email regarding a tutorial on the new tool. The email needs no reply or maybe even no action. It is not a priority either. You can check it whenever you have spare time. How do you keep a track of it?
Tracking email and schedule
If you answered any of the questions with “I keep a track of it mentally”, you suck at managing your mailbox and your schedule. You need to look at how to efficiently manage your work by planning your day.
If you answered any of these questions with “I keep a track of it on my to-do list”, you can manage depending on how many emails you have to attend to. If the number of emails is short, your to-do list will remain manageable.
However, if you have to handle lots of emails, adding all actions required for every email coming in as a to-do list(even after following the two-minute rule), is not feasible. Even if you are patient enough to add them all, the long list will make the process inefficient.
Organizing email the GTD(Getting Things Done) way
I have juggled with multiple ways of managing my inbox. Among all the methods tried, the most efficient one is to harness the power of folders(called labels in Gmail). Despite being the most powerful way of organizing your mailbox, labels are the least used feature on mailboxes.
I encountered the approach in the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. The thought process behind this approach is based on the reaction to an email. Among all the other techniques I have tried, the GTD method is the best email management strategy for work.
Any email that comes to you falls under one of these buckets.
1. Need Action:
Emails under this category indicate an action from your end before you can reply to the email. Even if you acknowledge the email, but still have work to complete before considering the email as completed, the email falls under the Need Action category. Example: A co-worker asks me for a set of excel files which I need to organize, archive and send.
2. Waiting For:
These emails require another person to act. You cannot proceed further or consider the email as completed on your own. For example, an approval required from another division or waiting for inputs from an expert before starting work.
These emails need no action but you might need to read them to check for value. For example, an email discussed between 2 other people where you are on cc. The email contains an interesting link which will add value to you if you read it.
4. Reference Material:
These emails need no action but you might need them for future reference. For example, the soft copy of your car insurance or your tax-saving documents from mutual fund investments.
These emails do not need any action now due to constraints such as time, resources, budget, circumstances, etc. However, in the future, you might consider working on them. For example, the travel itinerary you received about Marble Caves in Chile which you may consider visiting in the future.
6. Quick action:
These are emails that will take less than 2 minutes to attend to. For example, someone asking you the headcount of your team or if you are free for a discussion over lunch this Friday.
7. Unnecessary Email: Straight forward delete
This category is self-explanatory. All the marketing, promotional and other unnecessary emails.
For most people, these categories generalize well. Since these are neither business domain nor role-specific, they should be applicable to you, covering all your emails too. If there is really an action that is different from those outlined above, feel free to add it for yourself and mention it in the comments.
8. Emails sent to you(situational)
Have a folder for emails directed to you, where you’re in to or cc. Creating such segregation is especially important for people who receive a lot of group emails. Depending on the environment you work in, you might be a part of many group emails that have constant chatter. Separating the mails sent explicitly to you from the group noise reduces a lot of headache.
If group emails aren’t a big chunk of your inbox, skip this part because such a folder won’t make any difference.
The logic behind the buckets for Email
The purpose behind understanding the action behind all the emails coming in is because you will define the folders or labels in your inbox exactly by these actions. You will order your inbox like a well-organized lawyer’s file cabinet. Your email folder system will use a naming convention and a structure that matches the action you would take on the email.
You will need to also change the way you work with emails if this has to work for you. How is the way you go through your emails now? If your approach is to open your mailbox, read an email and perform the required work on it and then move to another email, you got it wrong. If you want a solution to the email overload problem, you have to change your working style too.
For example, if an email asks for a report you need to prepare, do you start preparing the report before going through all other emails? If you do that every time or sometimes, you need to change your approach of working with emails. If you start acting on emails before going through them all, not only is there a possibility of missing a more important email, but also a high chance of going through your day unproductively.
The right approach to divide and conquer your mailbox
The right way to deal with emails is by having a specific time slot to read emails and not have it interfere when you do actual work. When you start checking your emails, you have to go through all unread emails in one go. You will NOT work on any of them except for those which can be completed within 2 minutes.
You start the process by going through all your unread emails. As you read your emails starting from the first one(feel free to pick the latest one or the oldest one), you will do the following:
- Decide now, do later: Decide what action is appropriate for the email among the 7 actions mentioned earlier and move to the next email
- Finish off the quick ones: If an email falls under the quick action bucket, which is less than 2 minutes to complete, you will finish the task then and there. After completion, you move on to the next email to make a decision.
- Overcome the urge of doing before completing all emails: Do not get carried away by the urge of working on the email you just read when you know it needs some of your time. Make sure you read through all the emails first before you jump to a conclusion. You are assuming that the 3rd mail you read is more important than the 12th mail you haven’t even read.
How to set up Folders/Labels
The process is simple. You first make the decision of what action is appropriate to the email and move the email to the corresponding folder. Before you do so, you have to create 5 different folders in your Mailbox. There is no need to create a folder for Quick Action because those are the emails you work on right away without keeping them for the future.
Shown below are the categories on both Gmail and on Mac.
Mac Mailbox has an option called a New Mailbox which acts like a folder. Outlook has an option called Folders and Gmail has an option called Labels.
Mac Mailbox and Outlook Folders follow a one on one tagging. Each email can belong to only one category, whereas on Gmail, you can tag one email to more than 1 category. In my experience, I have almost never had to tag any email to multiple categories.
Moving emails from one category to another
When the status of the email changes you might need to move it from one category to another. ‘Need Action’ email can later turn into ‘Reference Material’ after your action is complete. A ‘Need Action’ email can turn into ‘Waiting For’ after your reply. Usually, there is no need for one email to be requiring two different actions at the same time. It is always sequential.
As you can see, I have moved these folders to the top on my mailbox because I handle email based on the folders and not the content of my inbox. My inbox content is only read once. My action is defined by the folders/labels.
Gmail has a few limitations though. You cannot move the Labels to the top on the left side of your web mailbox. The other sections such as Inbox, Sent, Drafts will always precede Labels. Also, the labels are arranged in alphabetical order which you will not be able to change.
To have Need Action as the first item in your labels, you can add a special character to the start like _Need Action or @NeedAction. The punctuation brings handles the alphabetical order. You can move the chat section and shorten it for better visibility and ease of drag and drop.
Decide and move to a folder
So when you are going through your emails, one after another, making a decision to tag it to one of the 5 actions. As you make the decision you drag the email into the corresponding folder. Some go into Need Action, some into Waiting For, some are tagged to Reference Material and so on.
At the end of the process of reading all emails and tagging them, you now have a mailbox which clearly tells you:
- The emails needing action
- The emails needing follow up
- The emails you can read when you have spare time
- The emails which you might consider in the future
The best part is, the mailbox is now a clear segregator of your emails. When you do this every time you read emails, your mailbox transforms you into a super efficient tool that tells you what you need to act on.
An email needing your attention is never missed because they are all in the Need Action folder. You can follow up on any email needing the action of others by looking at the Waiting For Folder. If you are free and thinking about what to do next, check what is lying in your Read/Review folder.
Along with adding items to various Folders/Labels, you must make it a practice to clear items that no longer belong to that Action tag. For example, once you have sent a report someone sent you a mail about, the email no longer needs to be under the Need Action bucket. You can move it immediately or do so the next time you check the folder.
I check the Need Action folder in the morning and once after lunch. If I encounter any email which no longer belongs to the bucket or has to be moved to Waiting For, I move it out. I check my Waiting For folder every couple of days. The rest of the buckets, I have no specific timeline on when I will check them. I do them ad-hoc. You can figure out what works best for you.
This email management technique works for executives and freshers alike. Of course, you will have to tweak the little details to suit your need.
The Getting Things Done model of email management is among the most powerful email organization strategies.
Following this is simple and easy. All it needs is a minor change in the style you work with emails.
If you make this your style of working with emails, you will raise eyebrows for not missing a single email. People will envy your memory power for following up on emails that required their action. In reality, you know your process had nothing to do with your memory.
People ask me time and again, how do I follow up on a long lost email. They assume I have the memory of an elephant when in reality my organized mailbox does the trick.
This article is Step 9: ‘Organize your Email: Smart tricks to handle 1000s of emails‘ of the final phase: Transforming into a productive superhuman of the 3 phase transformation into super human productivity. You can begin right from step 1 by accessing the index here – 3 Phase Transformation into Living Your Dreams.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.