Email management advice

This week I discovered that I missed reading  [and therefore responding to] a rather important email last year. It got me thinking about the best way to manage email.

Tim Harford had some thoughts on email management a few weeks back. Included in this was some research regarding whether you should spend time up front organising your email into multiple folders in order to later save time finding them back:

…have trained us to think in terms of folders, but an alternative is to find old email by searching for it – or even just scroll through a big fat unsorted inbox. Steve Whittaker, a computer scientist at IBM Research, with four colleagues, has conducted a study to figure out the effectiveness of these different approaches. It’s called “Am I wasting my time organising email?” and the conclusion is “yes, you are”.

I think some sort of folder structure is useful, but rather than manually filing everything I use filters and rules to automatically send some incoming emails to specific client folders.

I dip in and out of my email accounts using various devices, and in times when I am receiving a lot of volume I’ll often have a quick peek/scroll through the new ones without taking any action. This is not very efficient and makes the email appear read (which is what had happened in the case above, even though I hadn’t actually read it, just highlighted in the reading pane for 2+ seconds). So, things I do/have now started doing are:

  • Switched my email accounts to be IMAP rather than POP. This way, when I take action with an email (delete/reply) this propagates across my devices, and I don’t waste time thinking again later on what to do with it.
  • Deal with email in batches, and try to employ the ‘handle it once rule.’ So, no reading until I have some time to devote to emails, and then take an action after reading before moving to the next.
  • If I’m not going to deal with an email straight away, then either mark the email as unread again, or forward it to which will send the email back to me at a specified time in the future so that I can deal with it more effectively then.
  • To aid batching, I’ve turned off Microsoft Outlook notifications. This way I’m not distracted by emails arriving when I should be concentrating on a work task. You can however add an audible/visual notification for email from specific people/companies using Tools > Rules & Alerts for projects where email responses are time critical.
  • Have a folder for registrations. If I need to find back a login name, that’s a lot easier.
  • Have a folder for each month of the year for travel and expenses. This makes monthly invoicing a lot faster.
  • I use Xobni within my Outlook which makes finding files and url links from specific people easier.
  • Go through email at the end of each week, deleting anything I can, and quickly checking that nothing was missed.
  • Hit the unsubscribe button at the bottom of every newsletter received.

See this article regarding obsessively checking email by the smart professors at Cheap Talk, which uses a Poisson model of email arrival to argue that it could well be more efficient to have notifications switched on, otherwise you’ll be tempted to check too frequently for email,

…[if] you cannot resist checking any time you think that there is at least a 63% chance there is new mail waiting for you then you should turn on your new mail alert. If you are less prone to temptation then yes you should silence it. This is life-changing advice and you are welcome.

Plus, you know you’re making it as a blogger when companies ask you to check out and review their service. I recently received an email from RightInbox, a company offering an add-on to your web browser allowing you to schedule mails sent using the Gmail web interface to have a delayed delivery. Useful perhaps if you want to make the impression to your boss that you are working when you are in fact on the golf course that day, though I struggle to see a recurring function for which this could be used regularly and therefore attract subscription paying customers. Can you?

Related Post: How does the use of pronouns in an email differ between those of lower and higher status?


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