Email is often seen as an aging rock star struggling for relevance in an age of fresh-faced pop sensations like social networking. Jagger may jive on stage with Taylor Swift but the kids turn to Facebook to Like that their favorite singer wheeled out her grandfather for a duet.
Email is no longer how young people communicate. But one day they'll graduate to the workplace and learn that there, email is the dominant communication tool (they may also come to appreciate the rock'n'roll genius of the Rolling Stones). Far from being dead, a recent report forecasts the number of business-related emails will actually increase during the next five years.
For many professionals, email is where they spend their working day. For many, it's not a great experience thanks to inboxes full of unanswered requests, precious unused information and messages from people whose default setting is reply-all. As with any tool, email is only useful if it's used right. Here are the tools and tricks that help me ensure my inbox is a place where work gets done.
1. Color-code your inbox
You know you've got a problem when facing your inbox every morning is as daunting as starting your tax return. That monotonous list of names and subjects tends to be listed chronologically, not by importance so where do you begin?
I color-code my inbox using rules, so I know which emails I need to deal with first at a glance. Here are three rules to live your email life by:
• Emails where I am the only person in the To: line are colored blue. If I don't address these, no one else will.
• Emails from my boss are colored red. He pays the bills.
• Emails where I am cc'd are greyed out. I'm not the main recipient so they get lower priority.
Each email client handles rules differently but they're usually easy to set up. Spending a few minutes now will help you instantly prioritize the messages that need your immediate attention.
2. Turn off notifications
Email is like a beautiful siren, always trying to enchant you to ruin on the rocky coast of unread messages. If you're working on something else, pop-up notifications lure you back under email's spell and break your concentration.
Instead set aside time for emails, like after finishing a task or assign times of the day. Don't worry about missing something urgent. If something has gone DEFCON4, a phone call, instant message or tap on the shoulder are surer ways to get your attention.
3. Unsubscribe ruthlessly
You know those email newsletters you receive but never read? Get rid of them. If you are about to delete a newsletter without opening it for the fifth successive time, open it, scroll to the bottom and relish the relief of unsubscribing.
That's not to say all newsletters are bad. Email is a wonderful way to digest information without having to visit a particular site. Subscribing to a handful of quality newsletters will help you stay informed about your industry or the world in general (I love Next Draft for the daily news and Hacker Newsletter for my weekly dose of tech goodness). But as soon as you stop reading them regularly, you know what to do.
4. Don't waste your time with folders
For files you actually work on, folders are great. Organize them by project, divide them into subfolders and name them carefully like beloved children. Just don't do the same with your email.
After you read and, if necessary, respond to a message, it should either be deleted or kept for future reference. Having a variety of folders means you have to spend mental overhead determining where each email should be filed, while also needing the physical dexterity to master the art of drag'n'drop. Instead just send it straight to the Archive with one quick click or keyboard shortcut. Your inbox will begin to empty very quickly once you start doing this. When you need to retrieve a particular email, just search for it--it's usually much faster than clicking through folders.
5. Hack your inbox
So much valuable information is trapped in your inbox, like contact details or attachments. Freeing this information not only makes your email smarter, it also brightens other parts of your working day.
Most email clients have lots of great add-in tools that can grab these details automatically. For Microsoft Outlook, Xobni is a fantastic address book service that automatically mines your inbox for contact details and is smart about keeping it up-to-date and organized.
As for attachments, it's *ahem* shameless plug time. Hightail for Outlook automatically stores incoming attachments in your Hightail folders, freeing you from impossibly low email storage limits and letting you access attachments on any device.
6. Prioritize your personal life
It may seem counterintuitive to prioritize personal email when you're at work. But having open personal threads creates tiny paper cuts in your ability to give your full attention to work emails. Obviously this shouldn't mean the office is where you catch up on correspondence with your college buddies. But if something can be resolved quickly, do it and get back to work.
Follow these six tools and tricks and you'll find your inbox rocks. But being conscious about not contaminating other people's inboxes is just as important as keeping your own pollution free. Do you really need to hit reply all just to say "thank you" or "atta boy"? Would people actually appreciate not having one more message to deal with? Once you start thinking about other people's inboxes too, you help those who can't get no email satisfaction.
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