Love them or hate them, e-mails are here to stay. For the time being, at least.
Regardless of the advances in communication via other means, e-mails often replace the written (or typed) letter and fax.
Whilst we cannot control the number of e-mails we receive each day (there is a conversation to be had about e-mail etiquette and whether or not a two worded e-mail to say ‘thank you’ is well received or better avoided) we can manage them so they are useful to our needs and not an overwhelming distraction.
I recall a management training course leader advising the audience how much time the average person wastes on reading, digesting and actioning e-mails and discussed the many ways to reduce the hours and stress spent on e-mails.
The following assumption is a generalisation, perhaps, but there seems to be two types of people when it comes to e-mails.
One group might have an inbox totalling thousands, even tens of thousands, of e-mails that are eventually deleted if irrelevant to them. Their deleted box might then be used for reference in the future, if necessary.
The second group might be those that have folders and subfolders within their mailbox so that e-mails can be filed appropriately when they have been actioned or completed. People in this group might take it a step further and file their ‘sent’ items in the same way (although many might file their ‘sent’ items by year at the end of each one accordingly).
As a Virtual Assistant that loves organisation and order, I bet you can guess which of the above categories I fall under…
There could be a hybrid way of managing e-mails from these two solutions but there is only one way I have ever dealt with e-mails which has saved hours of time in my working weeks, months and even years.
There are many ways to make e-mails work well rather than allowing them to become an overwhelming burden in daily life and below is a start to that process.
1. Use your mailbox as a library
It is essential the e-mails that need to be referred to in the future (there will be many types but legal and financial automatically spring to mind) are saved in one form or another.
Apart from being filed appropriately in a client’s file, in both hard and soft copy, it may be that these are filed within your e-mail box under the appropriate heading for ease of reference and convenience.
2. Your inbox is your ‘to do’ list
Using an inbox as a ‘to do’ or ‘outstanding matters to action’ is hugely productive and proves effective.
The e-mails that don’t require action can be an easy distraction if left in an inbox. Filing them in a library and only leaving ones that are to be dealt with allows a much clearer visualisation of what needs to be done and can help in prioritising the ones that are more timely.
Likewise, sent items can be used as reminders to ‘follow-up’ if no response is received after an appropriate time so act as a reminder of outstanding items.
Filing them after the task is completed allows a clean ‘chaser’ list.
3. Categorising e-mails
There are a variety of ways of categorising e-mails.
Some may use colours, flags, marking as unread and so on.
Regardless of the way e-mails are categorised, depending on preference and in order for e-mails to work affectively, it is useful to ensure a mailbox is set up in a way that works for the owner so that correspondence can be found quickly.
There is a fine line between main folders and subfolders. Too many subfolders create a huge list in which to scroll to find the most appropriate subfolder for an email, which defeats the purpose of categorising.
One main folder might include ‘Clients’ with a few subfolders including: ‘Project Name’, ‘New Enquiries / Prospects’ and ‘Timesheets and Invoices’.
A main folder of ‘Finance’ could find subfolders entitled ‘Bank A’, ‘Bank B’ and ‘Integrated Accounting Package’.
’Admin’ is likely to feature as a main folder with subfolders such as: ‘IT’, ‘Website’ or ‘Policies’.
In whatever way a mailbox is categorised, as long as it works for the user it will be effective. What works for some might not work for others – and it is quite a personal thing of where someone is likely to find things, as and when you need them, quickly.
4. Set up Archiving
To avoid your system becoming sluggish and eventually ‘full’, archiving is a great way to keep important e-mails that can be accessed easily but not filling your current mailbox.
People tend to delete e-mails (that can be accessed for a set number of days) because it’s ‘easier’. The danger of doing this is losing important e-mails forever.
Once set up, archiving works really well - and rules can be set to archive certain e-mails that are needed to be kept might clog up a mailbox on a regular basis.
The next question to answer is if archiving will be done manually or automatically.
Auto-archiving is definitely the best option - this can be enabled in settings to the preferred timescale.
For Microsoft users, if auto-archiving is not an option (anything older than Office 2010, if admin has disabled the feature, or a Microsoft Exchange Server Online Archive is used), it is a simple process to manually archive e-mails in Outlook with the auto-archive feature.
5. Rules and automation
Rules to archive, label, categorise and file can be set up on any e-mail received. It is worth noting that it can be easy to ‘miss’ something that comes in - but as everyone works differently, this might be a great way to manage e-mails for some.
6. Accessing e-mails
Revisiting what that management training course leader taught me many years ago, it is widely known that there is a tendency for some people to stop what they are working on immediately to view a new e-mail that ‘pops up’ or ‘pings’ to announce its arrival.
I have heard many people criticise this approach, it is a time-consuming distraction, unproductive and bad practice.
Whilst I broadly agree with this opinion, there are many of us that need to know exactly what is happening in real time. I cannot allow an e-mail to sit, unread, in my mailbox for an hour or two, to return to it to read that my client needed me there and then.
There will be a large number of people that don’t need to rely upon e-mail as it arrives in order for their them to work effectively but for those that do, you need to keep an eye on everything at all times, a ‘pop-up’ is a useful tool.
They are able to glance at it, ascertain who it is from, weigh up the subject (the subject line is an important feature which many people don’t appreciate) and even skim the first two lines.
From that, they can then decide whether they need to ‘down tools’ and pay more attention to the e-mail and take action immediately or revisit it at a later time.
I clearly remember an exercise that we were asked to do in the training session.
We had to make a record, in our notebook, every time we looked at an e-mail that took us away from what we were doing at that time, during the course of the day. It showed us how much of a distraction e-mail can be and what stopped our ‘flow of thinking’ during an ordinary working day.
If the thought of closing your mailbox application completely fills you with dread, a hybrid way of working might be the answer.
An out of office message set up to advise senders that you ‘are offline’ until such a time can manage expectations, with an additional option of adding an emergency number for people to contact you, if required. This should ease the pressure of you not knowing if an e-mail is important enough to stop whatever else you are doing.
7. Keep it brief
Remaining mindful of not writing too much in e-mails is important. There will be some e-mails that often have more text than is necessary and by keeping them briefer allows the reader to pick up exactly what you are after and action your request accordingly.
Shortcuts such as ‘Quick Parts’ is well worth taking the time to understand if you find that you compose similar e-mails regularly, for example: invoice payments and receipts, meeting coordination and follow-up and proposals and agreements.
Any template you can use repeatedly for standard e-mails will save time, making sure that personalisation is added before sending.
It might be tempting to just delete anything that arrives in your inbox that is unwanted but by taking an extra few seconds to scroll down and ‘unsubscribe’ will save time in the long run and not take up room in your mailbox.
10. It’s in writing
The obvious thing to point out is once an e-mail is sent, it’s sent.
Don’t rely on retracting an e-mail because it was accidentally sent to soon because it more likely to be read than not being read if there is a label attached to it asking someone to disregard it.
A follow-up phone call might be in order requesting the person to delete and delete again from their ‘trash’ is probably the best chance of it not being read.
Language and grammar should be considered carefully and never left as an afterthought that it might not matter.
Although people might complain they receive too many e-mails, perhaps they might feel better for not having to send faxes every time they wish to correspond in writing.
E-mails, when managed effectively, are undoubtedly the best way to communicate for a wide range of people quickly.
Getting a mailbox in order might sound overwhelming to most but I get a great deal of satisfaction from completing such a project.
Are you ready to be in control of your mailbox rather than it being in control of you?
If I can be that person to help you organise your time before your well-deserved, get in touch to discuss further.