Email is a wonderful tool for both individuals and organizations, but when it becomes more of a burden and hassle than an asset, then it is time to pause and create a new email organization strategy. Email should advance your personal goals and organization mission – not detract from or further complicate it. Having a decluttered and clean email Inbox is a wonderful feeling – but only if doing so helps you achieve your goals. Given that, here are five email organization strategies to use right away.
1 – Identify the Most Efficient Processing Techniques
Organizing your Inbox is NOT the goal. Meeting your personal and organizational goals is. We can become so focused on all the best tips for how to organize email, that we can sometimes forget that email is there to serve the mission – email is not an end unto itself. NO ONE has ever received an award or recognition for having the cleanest Inbox or best organized email strategy. No – they receive awards and recognition for getting the job done and serving others.
Given that, consider the most effective email strategies that actually help you meet your goals. This extends beyond how the email is handled, to also include how emails are written. Here are some examples:
- Write meaningful subject lines to help your reader quickly grasp the point of your message, and to help you – and them – find your message more easily later on.
- Practice writing emails that are succinct and clear – communicating your point using simple plain language and bullets that provide the context, critical points and action items in as few words as possible.
- Use active language – this will avoid questions and misunderstandings about roles and action items.
- Be very clear on the requests or action items, who is to do them and when they are due.
- When you can, reply promptly to others, or let them know what you will be sending a more complete answer.
- When someone else should handle the message, forward it with context that helps them understand what is needed and why you are sending it.
- Triage effectively – for each email, it can be helpful to file, reply, handle or flag for future action after reading it for the first time. This way you don’t have to decide what to do with it twice.
- Use your email organization strategies to effectively file or index each message in a systematic way that saves time later.
2 – Walk Away from Email
Yes, it may seem odd to read this heading in a blog article about email, but sometimes the best way to declutter email is to walk away from it! It is easy to just keep replying to incoming messages – in the quest for an empty inbox, it is easy to become seduced by the activity, rather than the goal.
In many cases, if a face-to-face meeting is not possible, a quick phone or video call can be a better tool for resolving issues or to plan out the path ahead. For example, it may be time to stop the email exchanges when there has been a lot of back and forth on email without a clear resolution or outcome, or when too many people have been added to the message without clear ownership and assignments of tasks.
Here are some other examples where a communication strategy other than email may be best:
- Exchanges about a complex project or interdependent tasks, when it would be helpful to talk through the sequence and dependencies to ensure everyone is on the same page.
- Times when emotion is involved – either it is an emotional topic, or feelings have been hurt through a miscommunication or other event. In these cases, it is most important to focus on the relationship, which is best done using a more personal approach than email.
- When the topic is strategic rather than tactical, it may be best to have preliminary meetings to explore the issues. Emails can then be used to summarize the discussion, memorialize the plans and any decisions, and to communicate next steps to both attendees and a broader audience.
- While email can be a great tool for communicating thanks, never forget the power of a personal phone call or handwritten note to reach out to someone with gratitude.
3 – Avoid Decision Fatigue
Making decisions takes energy. Whenever you read an email, you have to make a decision about what to do next – Reply? Forward? Forward? File? Delete? Do more research? If you do not take an initial action when you first read the message, or mark it in a way that makes it clear what to do next, you end up having to make the same decision twice.
This is why it makes sense to have a standing processing approach and an indexing system to organize email, so that when a message comes in, you can quickly address it or move it to the next step of your email system. Examples may include:
- Converting the email into a task or meeting notice
- Filing the email in an “action item” folder or with a color that designates it as an action item
- Immediately filing the email if it does not require action, so you can find it again without having to read it and process it again
- Forward the message now to someone else to handle
- Delete or archive the message so you do not have to think about it again
4 – Periodically Declutter Email
Did you know that there is a “national clean out your computer” day? Just like you clean out your closets, kitchen cabinets, garage, or storage area, sometimes, it is important to make an appointment with your Inbox for an email clean up event. This may include:
- Moving old emails or project folders into an Archive folder or some other storage area, or deleting them.
- Flagging key contacts as “VIP people” so that their emails are highlighted prominently on arrival
- Establishing new folders or color categories to classify and organize emails
- Labeling emails for future handling
- Replying or forwarding emails that have sat too long in your box
- Unsubscribing from email lists or blocking email from unwanted senders
- Devising new email organization strategies to better manage your emails moving forward.
When taking these actions, be sure to keep any organization rules in mind for email archiving – don’t delete emails that you may be required to save. Instead use an Archive folder, so you can retrieve emails more easily if needed while keeping them out of the way.
The goal of this clean-up activity is to create a fresh start for you and your Inbox, and to help you reflect on what is working well, what is not working well and what you would like to do differently with your email moving forward.
5 – Remember the Point of Email – Communication with Others
Being able to quickly triage, organize and manage email is important for organizational success. Email is a tool for exchanging information, distributing and assigning tasks, tracking work, keeping people up to date and recording decisions. However, it can also be a tool for communication and relationship building. As such, here are some final points for effectively using email:
- Use names at the start of the email – “Hi Bob and Miguel.” This helps make it clear who the message is for, and also sets a personal tone.
- If you are asking for help or giving an assignment, don’t forget to ask politely, and use the word please. Email can be a cold forum, so make it personable and avoid sounding like you are giving orders.
- Say thank you! If you can, acknowledge someone’s effort or a recent success that is related to the message at hand. Communicating gratefulness for someone else’s work is good to do, even if doing the task is a normal part of their jobs. Everyone likes to feel appreciated!
- If an email has gone unanswered, unless it is urgent, wait a reasonable length of time before following up – this will generally be driven by your organization’s norms and culture.
- Remember, your email may be competing with many others, and you never really know what is going on with another person. Keep the human behind the keyboard in mind at all times.
- When a project is over, use a closing email to summarize the work that has been done and to thank those involved – this keeps everyone up to date with progress, and shows appreciation for those involved.
Cleaning up and decluttering your email regularly gives you the space to think more strategically and thoughtfully. When your closet is clean at home, you are able to pick the outfits that look best on you – when your email is clean, you are also able to put your best foot forward. The list above may not be strategies for organizing or cleaning up email, but they will help you use email more effectively in the long term – to build relationships and to meet your organization’s mission.