Taming the email beast

Paul Boag

Email is a crucial business tool for all those working on the web and yet we never discuss how to manage it effectively.

I originally wrote this post for Smashing Magazine and it is republished here with their kind permission. If you are not already subscribed to Smashing Magazine then you are missing out.

In the 1950s when we began to see the emergence of consumer electronics like vacuum cleaners and washing machines, there was a belief that household chores would be done in a fraction of the time.

We know it didn’t work out like that. Our definition of clean changed. Instead of wearing underwear for multiple days, we started having a fresh pair everyday and so the amount of washing required increased. In short the technology allowed us to do more, not less.

Our work environments have followed a similar trajectory with tools like email allowing us to communicate more, rather than making life easier. In fact many people are now overwhelmed with the amount of email they receive.

The problem of email

Email has changed our expectations of communication and most of us feel like we need to be constantly available. We are tied to our email enabled devices and like Pavlov’s dog we have to check email every time the bell rings (or beep chimes).

We are constantly available, constantly interrupted and continually overwhelmed.

Going offline isn’t the answer. Despite what many of us believe as web designers we do not just build websites. We provide a service to our clients. We therefore have a need to keep our clients happy and that can only be done by regular communication. Clients need constant reassurance their project is in hand and continual chivying to ensure they provide the feedback and contributions we require to do our job.

Like it or not email is an evil necessity. But that doesn’t mean it needs to rule us. We can tame the beast and it all starts by doing less.

Like any beast, the more you feed email the bigger it will become. Its time to put email on a diet. We achieve this in a simple way; we use email less.

Send less

Believe it or not it is perfectly possible to do considerably less with email and still effectively communicate with our clients and colleagues.

You probably don’t need to send out anywhere near as many emails as you do. You can almost certainly reduce the number of people you copy in on your emails. Remember the more email you send out, the more emails you will get back. It’s that simple.

Email is not always the best form of communication. Often a face to face meeting or a phone call are much more effective. After all the minority of communication is what we say. Tone of voice and body language are critically important in good communication.

Instant messaging (IM) is another options you may wish to consider. Although it can be intrusive at times, it can be perfect for quick questions. Email encourages longer form communication, while IM tends to be shorter.

That said, there is no reason why emails need to be long.

Write less

Here is an interesting fact. The less you write in emails, the less people will write when replying to you. We tend to mirror the behaviour of others and so if you want to receive more concise email, start writing emails that are to the point yourself.

You may feel these are less friendly and can come across as cold, but these are problems that can be worked around.

Try adding a link to five.sentenc.es to your signature as this site perfectly explains why your emails might come across as brusk.

Five Sentences website
Including a link to the Five Sentences website makes it clear to clients that you value their time and that is why you keep emails short.

An even easier option is to adopt the ‘sent from a mobile’ signature that many people use these days. That will provide a nice excuse for getting to the point.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Being friendly and personable with clients is important. I just don’t think email is the place to do that. If you want to chat, pick up the phone.

For me, email should feel more like Twitter than traditional mail. In fact, many are abandoning email entirely and turning to Twitter as their primary communication tool.

If this feels a step too far, try adding a summary of your email at the start. This makes it easier for the reader to just scan the summary if they are busy. Also, you will find people start doing the same for emails they send to you, making reading email much quicker.

As well as sending less email and shortening the emails you do send, it is also possible to reduce the amount you receive.

Receive less email

The easiest way of receiving less email is to tell people that they do not need to reply. Putting abbreviations such as NRN (no reply necessary) or FYI (for your information) into the subject area will reduce the number of emails you get back. But that won’t stop unsolicited email.

Most of us get a lot of unsolicited email despite the excellent spam filters email services provide. These emails are often newsletters we never remembered subscribing to or companies from whom we once made a purchase. Whether we did actually ever agree to receive these emails or not, the fact is they now clutter up our inbox.

When you are in the midst of wading through email, you may be tempted to just delete these and keep going. However, I would encourage you to take the time and find the unsubscribe link.

The problem is that these companies will not just contact you once. They will email you again and again until you take the time to stop them.

If they don’t provide an unsubscribe link, create an email rule that automatically deletes them. In the long run those few minutes now, will save you time and distractions later.

If you really are too busy to find those unsubscribe links and click on them then try out a service called Unroll.me. They make unsubscribing even easier.

unroll.me website
Unroll.me makes unsubscribing to emails easier than ever.

However you do it, unsubscribing from mass emails will dramatically reduce your email load. But don’t stop there, you might also want to consider unsubscribing to newsletters you did signup for.

Email should only be for communication

Part of our problem with email is that we have tried to turn it into something it is not. For example many people use email as a place to read news by subscribing to newsletters. However, email wasn’t really meant for that and there are ample apps (such as the wonderful Feedly) that provide this kind of functionality.

Feedly Homepage
If you want to read news use an app like Feedly, don’t use your email client.

Others use their email client as a repository for files that have been emailed to them in the past. This makes little sense as they have a much more powerful filing system built into their operating system.

Finally a lot of people have a tendency to use their email client as a task manager. They mark emails as starred or unread to remind themselves that they need to take action on an email. However, there are much better tasks managers out there that will enable you to work much more efficiently.

Omifocus 2
Your email client is a poor task manager when compared to an application like Omnifocus. Always use the best tool for the job.

Not only do our attempts to turn email into something else fall short, they also clutter up the email client making the job of reading, writing and responding to emails less efficient.

If you want to tame the email beast, make sure you use email as a communications tool and not a way of managing files, reading news or managing tasks.

Although the above techniques will reduce the amount of email coming in, it does nothing to mitigate our biggest problem; we are addicted to email.

Breaking our addiction

Earlier in this post I stated we have an almost pavlovian response to the audible notification of incoming email and although this was said slightly ‘tongue in cheek,’ it is in fact true.

When we hear the beep of incoming email we find it hard not to look. With email being checked every five minutes by default and most checks resulting in some kind of email, this equates to over 32,000 interruptions per year! That is a phenomenal figure.

Do we really need to be checking email that much? Almost certainly not. The majority of email that comes in is either unsolicited or can wait a few hours. In fact the number of emails that require urgent action are relatively rare.

The problem is that we perceive these few urgent emails as important. In many cases they are not. Its just a matter of training our clients not to expect an immediate response. Of course that is not always possible.

What we need is a way of being notified about only the important emails. Fortunately this is relatively easy to achieve. You start by turning off notifications in your email client. These are just too indiscriminate, notifying you about every email that comes in.

Next you signup for a service like Awayfind.com that will notify you by text or app when an email meeting specific requirements comes in. For example only receive notifications from a specific client or relating to todays meetings.

AwayFind Homepage
Awayfind.com sends you notifications for only the most important emails, so freeing you from the shackles of constant alerts.

If you don’t want to pay for a service like this, then you could achieve a similar thing with IFTTT.com.

The point is to free you from constantly being interrupted by email. Now you know that important emails will reach you instantly, you will be able to open your email client only a couple of times a day. Personally, I check email first thing in the morning, lunch time and at the end of the business day. That way I know I will still respond reasonably promptly to all email without interrupting my workflow.

When you do check your email its important to be organised in the way you deal with it.

Organising your email

A lot of people make dealing with email more complicated than it needs to be because they are not organised. The biggest culprits of this are those who never move email out of their inbox.

Having an inbox filled with hundreds (or even thousands) of emails increases the time it takes to process new email coming in. With so much clutter it becomes confusing what needs to be dealt with and what has been read. No matter how in control you may feel, things are bound to fall between the cracks.

Your inbox is the place where email arrives, but it shouldn’t stay there. Instead each time you open your email client you should clear its content. That does not mean you have to instantly act on every email, it just means you need to read it and make a decision about it.

After reading an email you have five options of what to do about it:

  • Act on it. If you have time to act on the email immediately then do so. This might be replying or completing a task outlined in the email. However, don’t feel obliged to act on an email immediately if you have higher priorities.
  • Defer it. Too busy to deal with the content of your email immediately? No problem. Turn it into a task that sits in your task manager. You can then deal with it in your own time and can see the email task alongside your other tasks.
  • File it. Many of the emails we receive have no actions associated with them. But they do provide useful information. In such cases archive the post for future reference. With today’s powerful search tools there is little need to file it in a folder, but it should be moved out of the inbox.
  • Delete it. If the email is spam or has no long term value then once you have read it feel free to delete it.
  • Delegate it. Some emails you receive will require action, but you may not be the best person to do them. In those cases delegate the task by forwarding the email on to the appropriate person.

The point is that your inbox is just a holding place for unprocessed email. Once you have read it and decided what to do with it, it should move out of your inbox making room for the next set of emails that require processing.

Start today

You may look at your inbox and be intimidated by the thought of having to process all of those emails. All of this might just sound like too much hard work. However, I promise you it is worth it.

If you find your inbox too overwhelming, declare email bankruptcy. Instead of trying to process all of those emails just archive everything but the last week’s worth of email. The chances are that if there are unresolved emails from more than a week ago its too late to respond now anyway.

Archiving the majority of email will enable you to process what is left. Work through each email and decide what to do with it. If you receive a lot of email then this may take some time, but its worth it. Remember you don’t need to act on each email immediately. You can defer action until later using your task list. The trick is to make sure everything is processed out of your inbox. Do that and I promise that you will never look at email with the same horror again.

So those are my tips on managing email, but what are yours? What do you think of email clients like Mailbox, or have you a completely different approach I have not covered? Let me know in the comments, I would love to hear your perspective.

“E-mail concept” image courtesy of Bigstock.com