Email Best Practices

We already covered why we struggle with email and how to use it appropriately. We determined that the tool (email) is never the problem; instead, the problem is how we use it.

Now, I’ll share some best practices for using email as well as some advanced tips for dealing with it.

If you run your own business, then you probably don’t get a ton of email. But, if you’re working in the corporate world, you might not be so lucky. The challenge is to make email work for you despite poor use of email in large organizations.

If you can’t get others in your organization to use email more appropriately, then the onus is on you to make email work for you without complaining about others. Remember, we can’t change others (nor make them do what we want), but we can teach them how to behave with us when it comes to email.

Here are some best practices you can use for dealing with email:

  • Avoid checking email in the morning. Use that time for doing real work because that’s when you have the most energy. In other words, schedule work based on your attention.

  • Never “scan” your email inbox for emails you want to look at first (or to see what “looks good”). Have the discipline to process each message. When you have a few email messages from a sender with the same thread, view the most recent message first to avoid doing things that might have already been done as the thread progressed.

  • Set a time constraint for processing email daily.

  • Don’t put energy into things you don’t want more of — including writing less email. Conserve your keystrokes (we have a finite number of keystrokes until we die); don’t use all those strokes for emailing people. Instead, conserve your keystrokes for more meaningful work.

  • Have personal values for using email (and stick to those). For instance, you may have a value such as not writing more than five sentences in an email response regardless of the length of the email you get. If it’s longer than five sentences, maybe you need to use another tool (such as a phone)?

  • Use your email signature as a way to let others know about your email values. For instance, you could include in your signature that you process email once a day M-F and if they need a quicker response they should call or text. This helps you manage others’ expectations with you.

  • Don’t let others interrupt your day by responding to their email just because it’s convenient/”urgent” to them unless it somehow overlaps with your agenda. If you did, you wouldn’t be able to get anything done.

  • Going through the day, you might remember to email someone about something. Instead of opening your email right then, make a note of it in your list manager using the keyboard shortcut for that application, and then get back to doing what you were doing before without having to worry about losing the note. You can trust that you’ll look at your list when you have appropriate time and attention.

  • When you want someone to do something by email (or phone), ask for the favor first (following a brief preamble), and then exchange pleasantries (not the reverse). When you do this, it keeps your credibility. When you do the reverse, the person who you email will feel “cheated” or misguided from your intentions.

  • When an email requires a detailed response that might take some time in order to incubate or sleep on it, write a quick email saying that you’ll get to it later describing the reason. The other person feels acknowledged instead of being ignored.

  • Email is not the best medium for having crucial conversations. Save those for the phone or better yet, for in-person.

  • If you need an email response by a certain date/time, let the recipient know. You are being clear about what you want and when you want it.

  • As a general rule of thumb, the shorter your email, the higher your chances of getting a response, assuming all other things are constant.

  • Use “Reply All” function sparingly and judiciously. When you get an email that was sent to a large group of people, ask yourself if a response is needed, and, if so, use your judgement whether to respond to just that person or to few/all.

  • Use “FYI” in the subject lines for emails with no actionable information. Even better, set up an email rule (more below) to filter out these kinds of emails from others.

  • Avoid using a ton of folders. Set up three top-level folders: Action, Hold, and Archive (as described in the previous piece on email). For everything else, use the search function in your email application to look for emails.

  • Always archive emails sent to you personally so you can use it for future reference if needed.

  • Use the VIP feature in your email application to keep track of messages you get from a few of your contacts so you’ll always see their emails first and foremost.

  • Use the Flagged feature in your email to keep track of emails. Then, unflag them when you want to stop tracking them. For instance, you could use the Red flag to keep track of responses that you’re waiting on from others. And you could use the Blue flag to keep track of emails for reference in the short-term.

  • Be wary of where you use your email or who you give it to. Avoid giving your email/phone number at retail stores simply because you’re being asked to. The more discerning you are about who you share your email with, the less chances you create for getting spam (more below).

  • Review your calendar every weekend to schedule emails (or phone calls in your list manager) for upcoming birthdays/anniversaries without having to remember them and to avoid missing them during the week.

  • Create a top-level folder called Read for all the emails that you want to read/review later (including newsletters you’ve subscribed to) but don’t want to spend time reading in the moment you’re processing emails. Then you can go through it on the weekends.

  • Back up your email at least once a month. You can even save yearly copies of those backups.

Here are some advanced tips for dealing with email quickly:

  • If you work in an organization where you get large volumes of email (which you can do nothing about or have no control over), create a folder called Inbox CC for all the emails that you have been copied on. Then, simply triage the inbox using the system: defer, delete, delegate, reference. While you’re at it, create a folder called Inbox External for emails from customers outside of your organization. Setting up these folders lets you quickly differentiate your work emails. You’ll need to use email rules (more below) to make this work.

  • Learn to quickly process emails using keyboard shortcuts. You’ll be more efficient at processing email and save a ton of time in the process.

  • Disable local spam filtering in your email application. Instead, enable server-side spam filtering to block emails that are spam/junk. Create a Spam folder for emails that are spam/junk. When you get spam messages, simply move them to this folder. If you use a service like FastMail, the service learns spam from this folder over time and will block those messages in the future.

  • Use email templates using built-in tools or third-party applications for creating boilerplate responses to common email messages. Examples include sending birthday greetings. Start out with a template by typing a few words, then personalize it.

  • Set up email rules in your email application to automatically trash emails that are automated. These would still be marked as unread so you could still view them (and save them) if you needed to (more below). If you have friends and family that send you “forwarded messages” about facts/jokes, you can create rules to trash them automatically as well so they don’t ever reach your inbox.

Use email aliases. Use one email as your personal/private email that you use to keep in touch with friends/family/work. Be extremely discerning who you share this email with.

Use an email alias for all of the accounts/logins you create on the web (without giving your personal email away). This works well for a couple of reasons. First, you are not giving your personal email to these websites/services, which prevents it from reaching your inbox (in case they contact you and/or decide to subscribe you to their newsletter without your consent). And second, it filters/organizes all your account-related emails when used with email rules.

Use another email alias for newsletters you want to subscribe to.

Create an email alias to store all the receipts for any one-time purchases you make on websites where you don’t have an account.

Create a rule in your email application that puts the emails for your accounts, newsletters, receipts, etc. in the Trash mailbox by default. The rule will also keep them marked as unread so nothing will be deleted from the Trash folder before you see it.

Emails sent to any/all of these email aliases will land in the Trash folder while also leaving them marked as unread (more below). So you can view them and archive them if you want to. If you leave it in the Trash for some time, they’ll eventually be deleted.

When you set it up this way, all of your emails sent to these email aliases will go directly to the Trash folder, but they are unread. So all you have to do when checking email is to see your Unread count (more below) which lets you see all your unread emails regardless of where they land. This ensures that only emails (personal/private) addressed to you directly land in your Inbox. Everything else goes to Trash unless you need it for reference, in which case you’ll archive it.

You’ll see the benefits of this when you set up rules in your email application to process incoming email.

Combine email rules with smart mailboxes to filter incoming email.

A “smart mailbox” displays messages that are stored in other mailboxes that meet certain criteria you specify. For example, a smart mailbox could include all the messages you receive about a specific project or from a specific sender, regardless of which mailboxes the messages are stored in.

I suggest creating the following smart mailboxes to begin with (followed by a workflow to see how it all works together):

  • Create a smart mailbox called Unread for all emails that are marked as unread regardless of where they land (including Trash). This becomes the defacto mailbox that shows you the email from all mailboxes. This is the only mailbox you need to check (and process). In this view, you can even have the actual mailbox of each email message shown in the column header so you know exactly where the email resides. Having this mailbox becomes indispensable especially when you use email aliases (as described above).

  • Create a smart mailbox called Recent for emails you’ve received within the last two weeks (or whatever timeframe works best for you). This will only show you those emails that have been sent to you personally that land in your inbox, but exclude any emails that are accounts/newsletters/receipts-related, etc..

  • Create a smart mailbox to view your email attachments. This mailbox lets you view all the attachments you’ve received by date in reverse chronological order, regardless of mailbox location (including Trash). This mailbox is particularly useful when you know you’ve received an attachment recently but can’t seem to find it.

  • Create a smart mailbox called Waiting to keep track of emails you’re awaiting responses to. Set it up with the following rule: Message is from yours truly and is flagged. That’s it. The next time you send an email that you want to keep track of (or await a response to), simply flag it. You’ll see that the email now shows up in the Waiting mailbox. As a best practice, go through the Waiting mailbox once a week to see which ones you have gotten a response to (and unflag them), and follow up on the ones for which you’re still awaiting a response.

  • Create a smart mailbox to see all the emails from specific senders in reverse chronological order (most recent to old). If you’re working with someone for an extended period of time (like your boss/colleague at work, for instance), create a smart mailbox with emails from that sender so you can quickly navigate all of their emails instead of hunting and pecking for them.

When you open your email application, Unread is the mailbox you go to because it contains unread messages from all mailboxes (including Inbox and Trash). Then, you can simply triage using keyboard shortcuts to process each email.

With smart mailboxes (as with most things), start with only a few, such as the ones above. Then, evaluate based on what you need. Keep as many as you need and as few you can get by with.

When it comes to using email, look for ways in how you use it and learn how you can use it better. Then it’s a matter of using a combination of rules, folders, and/or smart mailboxes in your email application to make email work for you, rather than against you.

Remember that email is only a tool. It is essentially an inbox like any other. When we learn to use it well, it can make all the difference between staying on top of things and feeling stressed and overwhelmed and not getting much done.

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