My Totally Great Guide to Managing Email Like a Pro

This morning I read a new article from Joshua A. Krisch posted to fatherly.com called “Why Email Is So Stressful, According To Science”. As the headline makes clear, the author believes that email anxiety is one of the biggest causes of stress for the average office worker.

Everyone seems to have their own system for dealing with email, whether it’s treating it like a game, trying for inbox zero, responding to a few at a time and ignoring the rest, or throwing their hands up and declaring email bankruptcy.

The last option is not uncommon, but is also scary since we all assume that somewhere in those unread emails is that exact opportunity that we’ve been waiting for, and it’s through our inability to manage the growing pile of correspondence that we’re missing out.

Another fear is that we’ve waited too long to respond to an email, and as time goes on we naturally want to respond to it less, as our guilt around not responding grows. The podcast Reply All decided to fight back two years ago by starting the holiday Email Debt Forgiveness Day, which was just a few weeks ago. If you missed out you can still find info on their site on how to celebrate, along with a helpful email template.

But does it have to be this hard? I get stress from email time to time, but I admit that it’s never been all-consuming in my life, personal or work. I don’t think that I’m preternaturally disposed to being less stressed by communication, far from it. I have found a few things that make email easier to manage for me, and I’m going to put on my productivity wizard hat to dictate how you should handle your communications.

1. Check Email Less Frequently

This one should be the most straightforward. If you check email less frequently, you have a better opportunity to treat it like a discrete event. Use the novelty of checking a few times per day to provide more focus to what you’re checking.

I keep my inbox clean enough that I’m ok with keeping it in reverse chronological order. I click at the top, and have the Gmail settings for the send and archive buttons as well as the auto-advance lab feature on. I also use keyboard shortcuts on my accounts, allowing me to use my keyboard more, which I’m already using to write.

You can find the Send & Archive button as well as the keyboard shortcuts in Gmail in the settings page located at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#settings/general. The Auto-Advance lab feature can be turned on here: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#settings/labs

The Send & Archive button on email compose means I save a few clicks and a screen load.
The Auto-advance feature also saves time by letting me move directly from one email to the next.

Using those features I can more quickly progress through email while clearing out my inbox. Every email is acted on and archived.

I start out with a win by making a lot of email skip the inbox in the first place by filtering them to folders if they are automated notifications or newsletters. I currently use Unroll.me to group emails together, but I’m phasing it out as I transition to a new email account.

2. Get off of the Notification Cycle

I’m not a fan of notifications pretty much anywhere. I have a few things that can send me notifications like work messages and texts, but otherwise I let apps and websites stay quiet unless I choose to check on them.

I could expound upon how this relates to email specifically, but honestly it helps reduce stress with a lot of how I use the web. I end up checking some things more frequently than I’d like, but I let them fit to my schedule, not the other way around.

3. Know When to Say No/Manage Expectations

I know the urge to say yes to requests can be powerful. I do this all the time, and I don’t fault anyone else who does. It’s only over the past few years that I’ve started learning how to say no to things that don’t fit my skillset, or that don’t directly help me gain new skills or serve clients better.

I get the idea that you miss 100% of shots not taken, but maybe those aren’t the shots that I should be taking anyway.

I also try to let people know when and how I’ll respond, if I am going to have to pass on something, or if there will be further action taken. Being direct is one of the best things that I’ve learned to do in email both to set expectations for others, as well as clarify my thinking.

If I can put my desires into words, I can have a better chance of making them happen.

4. Treat Email as a Separate Medium

This is a habit that’s hard to make. What I mean by treating email as a separate medium is that it’s not a text, it’s not a letter, and it’s not a social media update. Email has existed in a similar form to what we use now for almost fifty years, yet we still want to write full letters with greetings and salutations.

Chances are I know who you are if I’m responding to an email, and vice versa. I understand that some people feel rude sending short emails, but generally an email that can be answered quickly – or doesn’t require an answer at all – makes recipients feel even better. One hundred people can send me emails that individually take them a few moments to compose, but if they all send in teh same day that equals hours of time dealing with them.

On the topic of emails without response, I’m still looking for a polite way to let people know that emails don’t require a response. Don’t feel obligated to send me a “Thanks for handling this!” email, when all it ends up meaning is another message to manage.

So, that’s my attempt at an email listicle. What email tricks should I be trying out? Make me feel more productive!

One thought on “My Totally Great Guide to Managing Email Like a Pro

  1. Separate email accounts for different things help me greatly organize. I have one for personal, one for book blogging, one for author newsletters/street teams, one for finances/employment/secret shopping, and one for eARCs/BETA reads so they don’t get lost amongst the midst of everything else.

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