It Starts With Knowing How to Organize Your Email Inbox
Let’s raise a toast to email. This digital tool that has revolutionized the speed and simplicity of human communication, while also now completely overwhelming and exhausting its users. Reports of its demise at the hands of other communication tools have been greatly exaggerated. And so here we are, entering in the 3rd decade of this millennium, still using email.
How we use our email is no longer limited to communicating with another person. We use our email address to log into web services. We use it as a firehose of personal notifications. And yes, we use that same address for email correspondence. And despite rumors that younger generations are passing on email, it’s impossible to imagine a business where employees aren’t tethered to an email inbox. This may explain the current trend of innovation in the email space.
When email feels great, it’s because it’s doing its job effortlessly: connecting us to people, preserving important information, and solidifying our online identity. When email takes effort, it feels awful. And that’s when we start to avoid our inbox, igniting a vicious cycle.
How to Use This Guide
The purpose of this guide is to help you love email again. We’ve distilled the best email management strategies into one document. The goal here is not Inbox Zero. This guide will help you return your email back into the hub of your productivity. For this discussion, we’ve divided this guide into two parts:
- How to Organize an Effective Email Inbox
- How to Send an Effective Email
You will have a better-organized inbox and be more impactful with your email use. You should feel assured that important information is never missed or forgotten.
PART 1: How to Organize an Effective Email Inbox
Why Email Organization Matters for Your Productivity and Mental Well-Being
Jugglers don’t think. Like an athlete that’s mastered their sport, the mind of a juggler runs in a zone state while the balls are in the air. Jugglers react to where the ball will be, not where it is. If they think too much about catching the balls, the balls get dropped. The same is true with information. Remembering what’s important should feel effortless and stress free.
Once you embrace organization that works for your email, there should be a sense of relief after a few weeks of practice. Email correspondence will no longer feel overwhelming. Information is being captured and communicated confidently. You will feel assured that the reminders you sent to yourself are actually reminding you.
Good organization breeds productivity for two reasons. The first is obvious: there is no wasted time finding emails or prioritizing which emails need attention. The second reason affects productivity just as much: disorganization causes stress. If your inbox is cluttered then you are likely experiencing a negative feedback loop every time you visit your email. This feedback tells your mind to check your email less, leading to a cycle of increased inbox mayhem.
A Perfectly Imperfect Approach to Organizing Your Inbox
How each of us adapts to organization varies, so find the practices that suit you best. Embrace techniques to manage your email inbox and break the vicious cycle of disorganization. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Try these techniques listed and see which ones work best for you.
- Use an email system with a priority inbox (and turn this feature on). This will provide immediate relief from the firehose of messages. Pro tip: If you have to switch email providers, don’t fret. You can place a forward on your old email address to route emails to your new inbox.
- Use a separate email address for e-commerce, newsletters, etc. where your email address will likely be used for promotions. For most people, this means creating a new email address to give out to friends and family.
- Pro tip: Don’t spend time trying to unsubscribe to every service you ever provided your email address. Embrace filters and a priority inbox to keep the noise at a distance.
- Pro tip: For many email services, like Gmail, you can use a “+” symbol to provide different email addresses that still route to your inbox. Example: Jane.Doefirstname.lastname@example.org will still route emails to Jane.Doe@gmail.com.
- Create tags or folders inside your email based on WHEN you need to respond, not WHAT the email is about. Once you’ve handled the email, then you archive it.
- Pro tip: Many people swear by using only three folders: Today (for critical), This Week (for important), and This Month (everything else that deserves attention). Set aside time in your calendar to manage one of these folders.
- Change your habit of emailing yourself into an act that’s more productive. A lot of people are their own worst enemy because they clutter their inbox with emails they sent to themselves. Use a filter to separate these emails into a special folder, skipping the inbox.
- Pro tip: use Glvvv, a system designed for people who email themselves a lot.
4 Ways to Use Your Email to Help You Manage You
Outside of corresponding with people, your inbox is likely the main place you manage yourself in conjunction with your calendar. That’s sort of crazy because email was not designed to help you coordinate your life or your work. Here are four ways to embrace email as a means to better coordinate yourself:
- Be intentional with your first inbox encounter of the day. Is your email inbox the first thing you look at in the morning? Turn that habit into a short, productive moment:
- To start, don’t check your email on your phone or before you’re ready to really dig in.
- Set a moment (literally 15 minutes on your calendar each day) to huddle with yourself. What’s the big priority today? What’s on the calendar? What’s in your email? As you ask this last question, open your inbox and quickly sort the priority emails. Who needs a response today or this week or this month? Does anything need to be added to your calendar?
- Don’t write replies unless there’s something urgent. Just use this time to digest and sort the new messages.
- Then close your email.
- Separate email from others and email from yourself. Do you email yourself? Email from yourself serves different functions from the email you receive from others.
- Look at the patterns of what you send to yourself. Are these reminders and to-do’s? Are these things to read later? Are these emails with important file attachments? Figure out a system that separates the emails from yourself from the emails from other people.
- Emails from other people are about correspondence (and that’s what email is designed for). Emails from you to future-you are about remembering things. Either create filters to provide this separation or use a system like Glvvv which automatically categorizes what you email to yourself to make it easier to find later.
- Regardless which system you choose, make sure you take a moment to transport these reminders to a system that’s not your email inbox.
- Block out dedicated email time. Do you leave your Gmail inbox or Outlook inbox open all day? Avoid this.
- Plan times to respond to people. Block out a small amount of time each afternoon or evening to respond to the emails deemed important enough to respond today.
- At the end of the week, take 30 minutes to get back to the people that you marked for “this week.”
- Leave one hour near the end of the month to do the same for those marked “this month.”
- Develop the habit to archive emails after you press send.
- Keep separate email accounts separate. Do you have incoming email from different addresses that need checking?
- Avoid the recommendation to forward email multiple email addresses into one inbox.
- Set times to review each of these, based on their priority. Maybe you only need to check your personal email a few times a week and your work email a few times a day.
Inbox Zero or Inbox Hero
Your email inbox was designed for you to respond to others. Yet most people use their email system to manage themselves. There’s plenty of guidance on the internet about how to name appropriate folders or even create a to-do list out of email. Even with these techniques, the issue remains: your inbox requires you to manage the firehose of information. And if you are the type of person that sends emails to yourself, then you are your own worst enemy when it comes to Inbox Zero.
The answer to “should I break the habit of emailing myself?” is NO! Emailing yourself is great because it’s really fast. And you can do it from anywhere. Pull out your phone wherever you are and fire off that reminder, or to-do, or link to read later. Emailing yourself is the best way for you to communicate with future-you. The trick is to reduce the amount of time needed to sort emails (especially the ones that you sent to yourself).
But maybe your problem is worse. Do you fear you are losing track of important messages you wanted to remember? Is the number of unread emails in the triple digits or more? Does opening your email account cause you anxiety? Do you need a filing system for your filing system? Are you just scanning subject lines hoping to spot important emails? How can you better manage this volume of digital clutter?
The good news is you are not alone in being overwhelmed by email. The better news is adopting good email organizational strategies can alleviate much of the pain. And there’s no need to stop emailing yourself! All of these problems can be mitigated by following the simple blueprint outlined below.
It’s important to remember your goal should not be Inbox Zero. With good email management, the goal instead is Inbox Hero: feeling organized and confident you’re not missing or forgetting anything.
Whether you are a Gmail or Outlook user (or other platforms); whether you have one or multiple inboxes; whether it’s your personal email or business email — here are some organization tips to bring you closer to digital calm:
Tip 1: Don’t Get on the Email Treadmill
Don’t allow yourself to be turned into a lab rat pulling a lever for cheese. This is known as the slot machine problem of intermittent rewards. The brains of animals–humans include–are indefinitely stimulated by a reward system that’s unpredictable (whereas a reward system on a predictable schedule will lose its stimulation). Getting a new email from someone exciting is quite the reward and entirely unpredictable. You can imagine how the inbox becomes a slot machine for most. It’s important to protect yourself from over-checking your email. Set specific times to check email and to respond to messages. Turn off email notifications.
Tip 2: Embrace the Newest Software
If you’re reading this you probably don’t have a professional assistant handling your email for you. So managing your email is up to your habits and your software. Many people are starting to pay for email software that’s “smart” — these are systems that use algorithms & AI to help sort and manage your inbox. These include Superhuman, Hey, and Glvvv. Superhuman and Hey are focused on the smart inbox as a means of speedy email triage and correspondence. Glvvv helps organize the emails you send to yourself to help you manage reminders and information that’s just for you. Consider adopting a smart inbox for your correspondence and Glvvv to manage the emails you send to yourself.
What Is The Benefit Of Email Archiving Vs Deleting?
Deleting an email means it’s gone forever. After deleting an email, the data will be purged from your computer (if running an email client) and the server that the data is synchronized with (note: any recipients of the emails you deleted will still have their copies). Gone really means gone when it comes to deleting.
Archiving an email means the email is hidden from your view, but the data is still accessible for when you search your email.
The benefit of archiving means you’ll never be without your email data. That’s often helpful when you need to find something from the past, like a receipt or an important message.
The downside of archiving email is it leaves a very large data imprint. You might have to pay Gmail more for the storage or your business may have a data limit with Outlook. There’s also the risk of your account being accessed by a hacker — they too can access anything archived (like passwords and personal information). But as long as you use a strong password (get a password manager!), you shouldn’t fear this aspect of archiving your email.
What Is The Benefit Of Snoozing Email?
Snoozing email is arguably the single best feature added to email programs in recent years. Inbox clutter, as detailed earlier, is the real villain of disorganized email management. The snooze button is akin to sweeping the clutter under the rug. It’s literally an option to deal with a particular email later.
That description doesn’t represent the brilliance of the snooze option. Think about your week: there are certain hours when you want to focus on your work, your family, or yourself. When you sit in front of your inbox, it’s the same: there are appropriate moments to respond to friends, or pay the bills, or catch up reading the articles you’ve been saving. And this list doesn’t even contemplate your work email (which is hopefully a different email address altogether).
The beauty of snoozing an email, when used effectively, is it allows you some control to plan when to deal with an individual email. If you get a lot of email on a regular basis, however, the snooze button will feel like holding a tennis racket watching 10,000 tennis balls headed over the net.
Use the snooze button as a last resort for planning when to follow up to an important correspondence. Otherwise trust the organization system you’ve put in place to help you manage your inbox.
What Are The Benefits Of Priority Inbox Filters?
Once upon a time, the spam filter was created to help you avoid phishing attempts and diet pill marketing, among other unsavory and unwanted emails. Years later, the bright idea was hatched to reverse the spam filter. The priority inbox was born.
Many email products, like Gmail, offer a priority inbox filter to predict which emails you’re most likely to respond to or want to read. The less critical emails get filtered into other places (Gmail offers automatic filtering for social notifications, product promotions, any type of update, forum messages, and, of course, spam).
The benefit of a priority inbox is that if you receive hundreds of emails a day, this view of your inbox will immediately make your inbox feel more manageable.
Pro tip: Any email program offers the ability for a user to manually program their own filters. This includes “skipping the inbox” or automating email routing so email travels to specific folders. This is a pretty advanced way of managing email but is needed in certain scenarios with high volume senders.
What Are The Benefits Of A Smart Inbox? Superhuman vs Hey
Smart inboxes are all the rage. A few years ago, paying for a personal email service sounded absurd. Now email applications like Superhuman, Hey, and Glvvv are leading the way to reinvent email. Users are more than willing to pay for these email systems because of the effective approaches to managing email, along with the value of data privacy (if you are using a free personal email, then your data is definitely being sold).
The goal of a smart inbox like Hey and Superhuman is to quickly get you in and out of your inbox. The benefits include organizing and searching for emails. Superhuman and Hey rethink correspondence with their smart inbox approach to help you triage your email messages. As communication tools go, you’ll find both prove effective for keeping on top of inbound important messages.
Superhuman landed on the scene first. Famous for their one-on-one, live onboarding, Superhuman wants to help you become faster at emailing. Superhuman’s user experience drives the user toward Inbox Zero. Their clean interface helps keep the feeling of being overwhelmed by email overload at bay. Pair this with their many, many hotkeys, and organizing email is indeed quick (once you climb the tool’s learning curve). Superhuman isn’t for everyone. This is for people that are inclined to learn hot keys and love a minimal interface and are happy to pay $30 a month for service.
The experience of Hey by Basecamp, is also unique. Like Superhuman, the system wants to learn what correspondence is important and hide the rest. If you’ve used Basecamp’s other products, the interface will feel familiar. If not, this inbox will take some getting used to. In the words of The Verge’s Casey Newton:
— Casey Newton
“…in Hey’s view, email is basically three things. It’s things you need to respond to, things you want to read, and receipts. Each gets their own home within the app, and basically nothing else is welcome.”
Hey requires you to adopt an @hey.com email address. Superhuman does not. In other words, Hey replaces your old email, whereas Superhuman simply provides you with a new interface (your email address doesn’t change). Hey is $90 a year–the equivalent of 3 months of Superhuman.
PART 2: How to Send Effective Emails
For this discussion, we are looking at general work-related email messages. These include messages intended for co-workers, individuals within your organization, and even clients. For sales emails, we recommend you explore additional resources related to that particular kind of message.
General Email Structure
Email structure has its roots in the structure of a business letter. It has an addressee, a subject line, a body, and a signature. It may also have a salutation.
- Addressee. This may sound obvious, but make sure you have the correct email (and it is spelled correctly). Put the intended recipient(s) in the TO field and any other included visible recipients in the CC field. Use BCC for sending copies of the message to a repository or CRM (like Dropbox or Salesforce). Check–then double-check–you are spelling the recipient’s name correctly when you address them in the actual message.
- Subject Line. Effective email communication starts with the subject line. Messages with ambiguous email subject lines will get lost. Long subject lines get a lower response rate, based on data. A good subject line is like a newspaper headline: informative and makes you want to read the article.
- Salutation. Salutation can mean a greeting (“Hello,” “Hi,” or “Dear…”) or a title that goes with a name (“Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Dr.,” “Mrs.”). In the case of a greeting, email is much less formal than a business letter. You can include a salutation if it’s the first message you are sending a recipient, but usually not when it’s an email later in the chain of replies. In the case of a title, conventions are moving toward no longer including this in email, unless it is directly tied to a professional title (“Dr.,” “Rev.,” “Prof.”). Given the more gendered titles require you to know an individual’s marital status, gender identity, and preferred title, not using a title when emailing is the easiest route!
- Email Body. Similar to your subject line (which should be relevant to your content!), keep the body of the email concise and straight forward. Effective use of emailing as a communication tool is as brief as possible and precise. Put important and urgent information as close to the top as you can. Use bullet points and short paragraphs. Put any due dates or important information in bold. Be wary of using unique fonts or formatting as various email platforms and devices may display that content differently.
- Email Signature. Always keep it simple. Use minimal graphics (these can get caught in filters, not load properly, and end up being shown as attachments in some platforms). For work emails, avoid inspirational quotes, entire biographies, and lengthy lists of your accolades. You can include a link to your LinkedIn profile or professional website instead. Include only the contact information or context your audience needs to know in your email signature.
Common Questions to Email Etiquette
- Is it appropriate to include emojis in your business communication? Emojis, or emoticons, have evolved to be accepted in the workplace. And for good reason: they replace the face-to-face body language. Readers struggle to understand tone in an email. Emoji allows the reader to interpret facial expressions with the words.
- Is it appropriate to use capital letters in an email? Also known as ALL CAPS, capital case is interpreted as yelling. So no, that’s not appropriate typically.
- Is it appropriate to just respond to the new person when someone makes an email introduction? This is a great place to utilize BCC. Acknowledge the person who made the introduction at the top of your response, and indicate you’ve moved them to BCC. Then continue with your connection with the new party. The introducer now knows you’ve connected AND their inbox doesn’t fill up with reply-alls in the back and forth of you getting to know the new person.
- What’s a good way to make sure a business email makes grammatical sense? Use of email is only effective if the content is coherent. Take a minute, before you hit send, to read over your email aloud. That’s right: read it out loud. Hearing the content spoken can catch grammatical errors, sentence fragments, and other areas where the message may be lost or disjointed. You can do this under your breath–no need to use a full speaking voice!
Tip 1: Short and Sweet Wins the Day
Some people avoid responding to emails because they feel like they owe a dissertation. A thoughtful response is not judged by length. In fact, data reveals that short emails get read more often. People appreciate succinct email replies. So allow your inner Hemingway to shine.
Tip 2: If Your Email Can’t Be Short, Then Make It Scannable
If you have to send a memo by email, then make sure it’s highly readable and easily scannable. Use short paragraphs, bullet points, and bold text to draw attention to key elements.
Tip 3: Sometimes the Email Should Be a Document, Phone Call, or Video Conference
Many companies report they improved their internal communication simply by putting soft rules in place around how to communicate different types of information.
Best Practices for Guiding Internal Communication:
- If debate around a decision is needed, that should be a meeting and not a message or email thread.
- If it’s a question needing a one-word answer, but it doesn’t need to be reviewed later, use instant messaging or text messages.
- If it’s important, use email to inform people and not an instant messenger. For example: when a decision is made, draft a memo in a document and share that by email (not Slack or Microsoft Teams). Determine importance by asking “is this something we might need to find and review a month from now?” Pro tip: you can also use GetCommit to capture knowledge your team may need for the future and to communicate decision making.
- If it’s a delicate situation, don’t leave your tone of voice to chance in a message or email. Make a phone call.
- If body language is important because you need to read the reaction from the other person or people, then use a video conference.
- If you have more than one question about someone else’s email, don’t reply to the email until you’ve done this: set up a document listing the questions and then share a link to this document. This will prevent a messy email thread and provide a place to preserve answers and back-and-forth.
- Too many meetings? Make sure colleagues are not scheduling meetings when they should be communicating asynchronously. Email, especially when paired with a cloud-based document, is a great way to communicate asynchronously. Here’s a nice online tool that people can use to figure out if a meeting is really needed (you can download the flowchart too): https://shoulditbeameeting.com
What Are Some Other Advanced Email Features?
- CC and BCC: Carbon (or Courtesy) Copy and Blind Carbon Copy, otherwise known as CC and BCC functions allow emails to be shared simultaneously with their primary recipient(s) in the TO field and others who should have awareness of the sent email. The BCC field is also useful in sending copies of messages to shared archives (like Dropbox) or other platforms.
- Spell Check: most email platforms now offer some form of spell check within their system to prevent errors and improve the clarity of the email communication. Users have the option of turning on the spell check to automatically scan compositions for errors.
- Grammarly: this digital writing tool can be added as an extension to assist in grammar and syntax composition for emails in English. Grammarly uses AI and natural language processing to assist with crafting clear, well-structured sentences.
- Boomerang: Gmail offers reminders about emails that you haven’t responded to or your recipient hasn’t responded to (and that may require a follow-up).
- Canceling an email after sending: Options with various names like Undo Send and Recall This Message are available in many email platforms. While the timeframe for cancellation may vary (and in some cases can be adjusted), these allow the user to cancel or recall an email once it’s been sent.
- Sending money: Yes, you can even use email for financial transactions these days. For example, within Gmail with connected Google Pay, you can “compose” a transaction and send funds to a recipient. Several other financial platforms have or are developing transfers in which email plays a role.
As we enter this third decade of the millennium, email is still with us. But our ways of using it are constantly evolving and refining. By taking steps and developing strong personal habits to organize an effective email inbox and send impactful, effective emails, you can ensure you are harnessing the best of this essential communication tool. And make certain that your email is working for you–not vice versa–today, tomorrow, and every day.
For more information about working better together, check out these articles: