Email management is one of those things that we all probably take for granted, but without using email our lives would be a lot harder. From sending and receiving emails to organizing them into folders, managing emails can become very time-consuming and frustrating. At the end of the day, it’s easy to forget that emails are just a communication tool, not the be-all and end-all (unless you are in customer services running support). We’re brought up to think that we should just hit send and not worry about the consequences. But, like anything else in life, if you take care of your emails, they will take care of you.
Email is often more time-efficient than a long phone call and we can also send files back and forth too, copying in anyone else who needs to be part of the conversation. The problem with email is that your inbox can start to run you, instead of you running the inbox. It leaves you feeling always on, always contactable and never able to get away.
There are many strategies to choose from, but the most effective ones depend on your personal needs and preferences. In this article, we’re going to show you some ideas on you how to manage your email inbox so that it’s easy to find what you’re looking for and you don’t have to spend hours sifting through it.
This guide will talk you through some ideas around concepts which will help you get on top of your emails and stop you from feeling so stressed about them. Hopefully, it will help you with some new skills you can take with you too. If you find that the strategies in this article work for you then please feel free to share them with others so they too can benefit.
Here are some quick questions you can ask yourself about your own current management process:
- Does the thought of opening your inbox fill you with dread?
- Are you always busy managing your email?
- How quickly can you find an email?
- Do you manage multiple email addresses?
- Do you even follow any email policies at work?
Email is one of the best time-saving forms of communication since the advent of the computer. No longer do you have to just call people, often and most times a quick email can save a half-hour phone call or form the basis for knowledge and reference which can be quickly found later.
However, emails can also become the death of time management and even create background stress which is carried on a daily basis. It leaves you feeling like you are never finished or done, especially if you are just writing outgoing emails all day and not getting to any real work.
Email use is slowly increasing. Statistica predicts that in 2022, we will be sending and receiving 333.3 billion emails on a daily basis. This is predicted to increase to 376.54 billion a day by 2025. The reason for the continued rise in email use is that we all find email so convenient.
Talk of emails being replaced by live chat systems and internal messaging systems (or alternate email systems), has done little to end email communication. A lot of these “email replacement software” systems rely on you having an email account just to log in and then to notify you of updates. Ironic, isn’t it?
Hopefully, after reading this article, you will be able to implement some of the suggestions and reduce any stress you’ve been feeling about emails and begin to enjoy writing and managing your emails once more.
12 Signs Your Email Management Workflow Could Be Improved
Emails are a great tool to facilitate communication, but I suspect that it sometimes turns into a counter-productive tool when we spend too much time managing our emails. If you find yourself doing any of the following (unless you’re in customer service email operations and your job demands you reply instantly to emails), then you will benefit from the tips in this article:
- You find yourself repeatedly opening up your email even though you just did it 5 minutes ago.
- You respond instantly to incoming emails to “make sure you stay on top of things”.
- You get easily distracted by popups notifying you of new emails.
- You spend more time replying to, managing, and trying to sort emails than doing actual work.
- The first thing you do in the morning is open your phone and check your emails.
- You prioritise your email inbox over the most important task you need to get done that day.
- You don’t take action on email, leaving it in your inbox.
- You feel like you are reacting to emails all day.
- You feel a constant nagging to check your inbox.
- You check your email before sleep which keeps you awake at night.
- You keep all your emails in the same folder, not separate folders leading to thousands of emails building up.
- You receive high volumes of emails but never feel on top of them.
If you can relate to any of the above, then hopefully this article with some of the email management tips we’ll go through, will help you to start to look at emails in a more positive and productive way.
Effective Email Management Thrives from a Simple Folder Structure
The best thing you do almost immediately to improve your email management is to look at the folder structure you have set up in your account. This would be the first thing covered in any email management training course (besides perhaps sending and receiving emails. Your folders form the basis of any email management strategies you deploy to ensure they work across all devices. It is one of the core email management skills you need. The best analogy to think of when it comes to emails is water. Unless you delete your email account then you are going to receive emails every day to your inbox. Some you might like, some you might not and some you might wish you’d never seen. The moment your email account is activated and people know about it, then you will receive emails. It’s important nowadays that no matter what device you’re using, you can operate to the same structure without much thought or effort.
Why Email Management Becomes Stressful Using Too Many Folders
Having lots of client folders or personal folders breaking down every individual email you receive and keeping things ultra organised is diligent sure, but is it really when you then hop onto your mobile phone? Email is one of the main reasons why people find technology stressful.
Here’s a scenario:
- You receive an email invite from a friend to go to a restaurant with a date and time.
- You go to your personal folder.
- You then go to your friend’s folder.
- You then find the individual friends folder.
- You then find there is no folder with this restaurant’s name.
- You then create a new folder for the restaurant and file the email in there accordingly.
Phew, you’ll now never lose it now! But using these email management tips will hopefully provide you with some email management skills you can transfer within your business or with clients.
But that’s too much to manage. There are some real problems with taking email management to this extreme:
- It’s not sustainable, especially with a high volume of emails.
- It takes too long to file especially if you have more than one email address
- You’ll end up with too many conflicting folders unsure of where to file things
- Your devices will take a lot longer to sync emails (especially when getting a new device).
- Folders will not be easy to find or spot.
- Your email provider may limit your folder count/sync especially if use IMAP.
- You don’t have to spend time putting emails into categories and predicting what might come further down the line, only to have to change your whole system to accommodate a new project.
A rule of thumb when it comes to email management skills and finding emails (and any file on your computer for that matter), you should be to find what you’re looking for within 3 clicks. If you can’t then you need to review your email management strategies to simplify it so you can. This means at the very least your email folder structure should never go more than 3 folders deep. Otherwise, you’ll end up in the abyss and become completely inefficient at trying to find anything. Any email management training should be able to support a simple, clean and easy-to-follow folder structure which saves time and effort.
You also need a folder structure which takes into account the nature of the email and sometimes context. For example, you might not need to keep emails that are telling you that a delivery is on its way. Once it’s arrived, it’s arrived, so you no longer need to keep this email unless you need to keep a reference of its arrival to look back on. The email will have served its purpose.
There is more than one way to set up your email folders, but the key is not to use too many if you’re accessing your emails across multiple devices. One reason for this is that mobile smartphones are smaller than desktop computers which means you will see a lot less of folders. The more folders you can see, the easier it is to file and take action on emails.
Here’s an email folder structure which takes some of its inspiration from David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. You can tweak it accordingly to your own needs, but it fits almost all scenarios of emails and offers a fast way to search for information on any device.
5 Important Email Management Folders You Can Use
There is no one size fits all as everyone works differently, but these key folders have formed the basis and foundation of good email management for many. They also work across any device you might use and enable you to file, find and free your mind from the background stress of not keeping on top of your emails. They’re also really simple, meaning they don’t take a lot of thought and help you whizz through your emails whenever you come to deal with them.
Here is one of the key email management tips:
This list assumes your email account comes with the standard inbox, sent items, drafts, outgoing (for your outgoing emails) and deleted items folders as standard.
The key folders you can use on top of your default folders are:
- To-Do (or To Be Done)
- Needs Reply
- Waiting For
- Leads (helpful for business email management)
That’s it. Those 5 folders can handle almost any situation your inbox can throw at you. Notice that it is just 6 folders and the leads folder you might not even need.
Here’s why those 5 folders work so well:
To Be Done Folder
This is for any email that you have which relates to a task or something you have to do. Very often you might receive something with an instruction or a task to be done. Unless you can do that task right now then you can file this into the To Be Done folder and know that when you need to look for anything that you still need to get done, it will be sat there waiting for you. You can also add a deadline/appointment to your calendar if a task needs to be done by a certain date. You can also add this to your to-do list and mark it as the “See To Be Done folder” so that you don’t have to rewrite the content of the email each time.
This is the big one. This is the one you are most likely to use. This folder is for anything that you might need to reference back on in the future. Many users keep this sort of email in their inbox, but this is what this folder is for. It takes the email out of the inbox and into the reference folder. If you like to keep a reference of a lot of emails then this folder will get quite large, but it will only contact the information which you have already processed and deemed relevant to need to be stored for future reference. This might be things like reservations, important work emails, a bit of background information to a project you’re working on, flight reservations, anything. This goes into the reference folder.
Your reference folder acts as your email archiving system. It means you don’t have to look to any third-party email archiving system and increase your email security by keeping them all in one place. This one folder can also have more of a positive impact on your email workflow than using dedicated email management systems. It’s your go-to folder for anything you need to refer back to.
Needs Reply Folder
This is the folder you can use when you have scheduled time to read your emails but this needs extra time to reply. This is the folder you would file any email in that context into. It might be things that don’t need an instant reply, something that needs a little more thought. But this is the folder that you can use to get the email out of your inbox and processed away to be dealt with when you have a little more time. This folder is also helpful for time-sensitive emails.
This is a key folder. It’s the folder which you use to put things into which you are either waiting for a an email response or waiting for something to arrive. This means you can quickly follow up on anything that is still ‘in transit or not quite finished. Here are two different examples of this. Let’s say you sent an email and you receive a reply. You then email back immediately asking another important question. You can file the initial reply into waiting for and use this to remind yourself if you haven’t received a reply in a few days to then follow up on it.
Another example would be to file anything in this folder which relates to any online order you have made. It might be an Amazon delivery and you have an important order number you need to file just to make sure if anything goes wrong you have the order number to hand. You could of course put this straight into the reference folder, but it’s better in the waiting for folder because the event is still happening.
You can also add a reminder to your calendar or to-do list too to make sure you don’t miss following up.
If you’re in business you can use this folder for anything relating to new leads or sales in the business. It’s a place where you can put emails so that you can reference back to them until they are either won or lost. Of course, there are CRM systems that handle this kind of information, but it’s useful to put anything that might be linked to new business. You can use this folder for potential project material or use a different folder name for anything that might make the emails stand out for the specified reason. It really acts as a quick reference folder for mail that might not need to be filed away for years but referenced again in a month or so.
Some additional folders you could add to the mix are:
- Time-sensitive folders. For example, you can add the @ sign and have folders such as @3Days @1Week @1Month. Here you can file mail that you need to reply to within that time frame. You could add @48 @72 if it’s within 2 days or 3 days as well, the choice of works is up to you. Once you have replied to the emails you can either file them away (in reference for example) or just delete them.
- Personal Folders. You might want one or two personal Folders to file away anything that you need more to hand or easily accessible in the near future. You might call these folders Family or Holiday. But really, these can also be managed within the core 5.
- Review. This folder is helpful if you need time to review something. It might be an important decision that needs to be made or an important project that needs discussion. Some people have scheduled review meetings, which means any important email relating to a review can be filed here and easily accessed at the required time.
- Follow Up. If you have an important message which you need to follow up on, then when sorting your emails you can use this folder to ensure that you follow up with a reply perhaps sooner rather than later. This enables you to not miss anything that you want to follow up on but not right now. This might be a client check-in or a personal matter.
- Read Later. This is a really helpful folder for anything you want to spend more time reading about but don’t have the time right now. It might be an email marketing piece or promotional email you received with a helpful link that you want to ‘read later. You can use the reference folder for this, but this folder just puts a bit more context to it.
There you have it. A really simple email management folder structure that is easy to use, quick to implement and can work across any device.
As you can see it’s very simple. You can see everything important and quickly access it along with an emoji to focus the eyes.
To help your eyes focus when filing, is to use an emoji in the title. This makes the folders stand out more and show as more important than say the outbox or sent items folder. It draws your eye to the folder. E.g. the waiting folder could be a clock emoji followed by the words waiting for.
How to Find Emails Easily Using the Built-In Search Feature
Fortunately, email management systems such as Microsoft Outlook (with Hosted Exchange), Office 365 or Inbox for Google Gmail and Spark, now have built into them great search functionality. In the past, this would be slow and cumbersome (so the only solution was to file things in long folder structures), but now you can find emails in an instant. This means you can keep an organised inbox and quickly manage, sort and file hundreds of emails. The management of emails using a simple email strategy and filing system is made much easier using email search.
With simple or advanced search features within your email applications or email program you can:
- Set specific search criteria.
- Search the current folder or for all items in the account (including calendar, contacts, notes and more).
- Search specific subfolders.
- Include or not include mail with attachments.
- Search via specific dates.
- Search via subject titles.
- Search via from and to and a whole lot more.
Everything can be found in an instant. This is why the above folder structure works so well in any single mail software or device.
For example, let’s say you wish to find an email, from a client, from last year in the final quarter.
- You know you put it in the reference folder, so you can click the reference folder.
- Then, sort the From columns A-Z and scroll down to the sender.
- You could also just use the advanced search feature and set the time frame for all correspondence within that period from the client.
Either way, you don’t have to look far, and you don’t have to go deep into a complicated filing structure. There are just a few places the email could be. You don’t have to take complicated steps, just a few simple steps to find what you’re looking for. This applies also to any device you’re using too.
If you’re using the web version of your email clients such as the Outlook Web App or the Google Gmail interface via the browser, then the search functionality can sometimes be instant. This is because when accessing your emails from this method, you are directly accessing your emails on the server. This can be a helpful tip if you ever want to look something up quickly going many years back.
Using the search feature also means you don’t have to use the mouse too much either and waste time opening and closing folder trees (where you have to look below each folder). This means that you can continue your work just like you might use a search engine, only this time it’s finding your filed emails.
15 Email Productivity Tips
There are a number of email hacks (also known as productivity tips) you can do to ensure you don’t get swamped by your inbox. Some of these you might do already, some might be a little out there, but some could make your day much more productive and ensure you run effective email management all day long.
Schedule a Time to Reply to Your Daily Emails
This one is great for ensuring you stay focused on work. In your calendar, you can set perhaps one or two times a day (perhaps more) where you focus on solely replying to your emails. You might set 10 am and 4 pm for example, or 8 am and 3 pm. Whatever works best for you. But set a time in your day when you reply and block out this time for a distraction-free zone to handle only emails.
In allocating yourself time to respond to emails, you will be less likely to send impulse replies and have time to think through responses and it will force you to respond in an efficient manner.
If you’re worried about what people think, you could add your email reply times in your email signature. Not only does this tell people when you will reply, but it also sets the expectation that people will not necessarily get an immediate response from you. And that’s fine. Setting a time in your day where you will do nothing but respond to emails, means you will reply to more, in a more focused way and stop jumping back and forth from your inbox all day. You’ll get so much more done.
If (because life happens) you can’t get around to your emails in one of the slots, then you can just delay replying to them until the next allocated slot in the day. This way it doesn’t disrupt or take control over your day’s work and schedule.
There is one caveat though. It might be that your job is to reply to customer support emails all day long. In this case, you can continue as normal.
Disable Email Notifications
In order to remain focused on your work and even complete ‘Deep Work’ (see Cal Newport), make sure you disable any notifications relating to your email (and to be really efficient any notifications for that matter). Concentration is like a muscle. The more you remain focused, the stronger your concentration for longer periods of time. If you keep reacting all day long to the sounds of new emails and being reactive instead of being proactive, you’ll just feel permanently stressed and feel like you’re getting nothing done and it’s 5 pm already.
To some level, email is there to be replied to when it’s convenient and timely for you. Not when someone demands you to. For example, if you have a day of meetings, is it really appropriate and professional to sit in a meeting replying to someone else when someone is sitting there giving you their time to speak to you and your mind is on something else? Stick to your scheduled email time, and remove temptations by disabling notifications. Believe it or not, smartphones, social media and tech, in general, are designed to be addictive and to keep you hooked! (Psychology Today). Resist the temptation and you’ll feel better for it.
Use an Email Signature
Not only does setting up an email signature save you from having to type your name each time, but it can also provide a valuable point of reference for contact information too. As mentioned you can show in your signature the times of day you reply and you can also use your signature to promote your business with email footer banners. You’d be surprised how often people click banners in email footers and how often they see your brand if you email a lot. Your email footer also sets your professionalism too. You can keep it simple, or you can keep it complicated, either way, your email signature says something about you, so make it a good one.
When the Subject Changes, Change the Email Subject
This is something that is really difficult to get people to do, but if do it, it saves lots of time re-looking up email content. How often have you found yourself emailing about one topic but then the topic changes? There’s nothing wrong with this, but when you then look back to try and find the referenced material or email relating to a particular subject matter it all gets jumbled together with other topics.
For example, take this email thread:
Email 1) Thursday Board Meeting
You talk about the board meeting coming up this Thursday.
Email 2) Re: Thursday Board Meeting
You talk about the board meeting and some points for the agenda.
Email 3) Re: Re: Thursday Board Meeting
You now talk about the game going on Thursday night and whether you will be watching it.
Email 4) Re: Re: Re: Thursday Board Meeting
Oh, don’t forget to email that client about that important project task due next Tuesday!
Email 5) Re: Re: Re: Re: Thursday Board Meeting
The dress code is suit and tie for the board meeting, forgot to say.
You can see here straight away that the subject matter has swung away quite considerably from the board meeting. If you went looking for key pieces of information, yes you could find it, but when your search results come back they will all show the same email title, which means you would have to open all emails to see which piece of information was of relevance to your search.
If however, the email replies had the subject titles changed to:
Email 1) Thursday Board Meeting
Email 2) Board Meeting Agenda Items
Email 3) Thursday Game Night – You Going?
Email 4) Don’t Forget to Email the Client About Project X
Email 5) Board Meeting Dress Code (for Thursday 28/04)
You can see how much easier it is to differentiate the information held within the email. This can save you and anyone you so much time. Especially if you get really specific and add dates into the titles too.
Use Email Aliases
Your email account can often come with more than one alias. For example, imagine your email is email@example.com. You could also have an info@, a sales@, and a hello@ as well which point to your inbox. This means that you don’t have to setup up multiple email addresses and they all go into the same inbox. It also means all your outgoing emails will show up in one sent box too rather than be spread across multiple accounts. It means you can have more than one email, but still keep productive.
Use Email Shortcuts Where Possible
If you have a lot of emails to reply to, then try and use the keyboard as much as possible. Rather than reaching for the mouse for example if you’re relying on your desktop computer, simply press the control key and the enter key at the same time and this will send your email. Those 3 seconds to get the mouse and move it to the send icon per email now get removed and you’re already onto replying to your next email in your allotted time slot.
Try to Keep Email Replies Short and Don’t Reply to Every Email You Receive
The shorter your email, the more concise your message. People get so many emails it’s best to keep them as short as possible. One way you can do this is to break up your content with bullet points so your key points stand out. Be careful your email is not too short otherwise people might think you’re annoyed or being short with them. This is where the use of emojis can come in helpful to set some context to your feeling and general sentiment – just use them sparingly.
Also, do you really need to reply to every single email? A lot of emails you get might include you in a CC. If it’s of relevance and provides background information you can simply just file it in your reference folder and look it up again in the future if you need it.
Make a Habit of Deleting Emails You No Longer Need
This one is actually quite satisfying. If you no longer need to keep particular emails, just delete them. When you think about it, how many times have you really ever been caught out from deleting an email (the one you can no longer find in your deleted items)? Probably not that often. People can always resend an email if it was recent or you can just apologise.
In deleting your emails, you’re keeping your inbox and mailbox storage levels low. This helps speed up the syncing of emails when you use new devices and set up your emails on new computers from time to time. Your reference folder becomes your go-to place for anything you need to refer back to. If you no longer need it, just delete it.
In clearing out deleted items and only retaining emails of importance, you are keeping your email systems optimised, fast and search-friendly. Just make sure you keep the really important emails, once related to important work tasks and projects, contracts and commitments. Most of the other stuff is often just chit-chat or confirmations. Don’t waste your storage space or time sifting through all the rubbish. Just get rid of it.
Categorise and Flag Important Emails
Email software such as Outlook has the ability to categorise and flag emails. This is a great way to make emails stand out. For example, you might categorise an email as important and flag it for a reply this week. This will then add a different coloured bar (usually yellow) and a red flag next to it. In any folder you then file the email in, it will stand out. You can then use this to also filter important emails and or emails that need a reply this week. This is really helpful when working on emails in your To Be Done folder or emails that need to be reviewed. You get added context to them.
Disable the Focused Inbox
Some people love this feature. The email system works out what emails are most important to you and puts them into your focused inbox. There’s just one problem with this, you might miss some time important emails. It’s best to keep things linear – the newest at the top and to change the email subject title. This way you stay in control of what’s what.
Unsubscribe from Mailing Lists No Longer Relevant
Another key tip for staying on top of your emails is to unsubscribe from emails which are no longer relevant. Be careful with this one if you use service providers as their method for contacting you might be via email, but if you’re getting lots of promotional emails from places you no longer visit or have no intention of visiting, just unsubscribe.
Use Your Calendar to Your Advantage
Use your paper or digital calendar as a reminder for responding to important email messages. You could simply put “Respond to Emails” and focus on the Needs Reply folder for 20 minutes. This way it will prompt you not to let emails that need a reply wait too long. Sometimes it’s good to let some time pass. You don’t want to bombard people’s inboxes too often otherwise you might just get blocked or classed as junk. Ouch!
Use Email Reply Templates
You can use software to store standard email replies to frequent questions or stock answers. Make sure you still remain personal, but if you have a particular reply you make each time an item is out of stock and you get an enquiry about it, boot up your stock reply database and just copy and paste. It saves a lot of typing and you can respond quicker in your allotted time slot too.
Look at Using Email Management Services
If you haven’t heard of it, look up SaneBox. This is a great software that sits in the middle of your email services and screens important emails from the not so important ones. This is a great service for kicking out junk emails and making sure the most important emails show up right in your inbox, not in a pile of junk. All you have to do is drag and drop your emails into the folders you set and the service takes care of the rest. The more you use it, the smarter it gets. It’s a huge time saver! You get to focus on what’s important and stay in control, of any device you use. You can also use it to remind others that you’ll be back in the office tomorrow, and a do not disturb function too to disable emails coming in when you want to focus. It has some really helpful productivity tools to keep you focused.
Enable 2FA and Change Your Password
For additional email security, it is strongly recommended that you enable two-factor authentication. Whilst this is not something you will use that often, it means that anyone trying to access your email account via the online version, will need to access your phone too (or the authenticator app). It adds a layer of security on top of your existing password and keeps your accounts safe. It effectively prevents access to email unless you grant it. Whilst it might be inconvenient to have to put an additional code in, when we use our emails to verify accounts and buy things online, this is the first step in your cyber security, so don’t put yourself at risk.
Whilst it might be a pain, it’s also good practice to change your email password at a minimum every 90 days. The reason for this is so that if anyone thinks they might have your login cracked, it’s changed before they can do anything with it. With data breaches happening more often, your email is often the first account to get attacked because it links to so many of your online accounts such as social media, shopping work and more. It’s better to be safe than sorry. This should be standard practice for any email policies you have at work too. This process can go a long way in protecting against business email compromise.
Email Management Guide Summary
Hopefully, no matter what email address you use this email management guide has helped you with some ideas on how you can keep on top of your emails during the workweek or each day. Emails shouldn’t make you stressed but should be seen as a tool to communicate and keep in touch with people efficiently and professionally. Using email management software properly makes email a highly valuable tool which we all use, but don’t let it get the better of you.
- Keep a simple folder structure for filing emails.
- Use the inbuilt search feature to look up any emails you have stored.
- Schedule a time to respond to your emails if you can.
- Disable notifications to avoid distractions.
- Make a habit of deleting emails you no longer need.
- Change the subject title if the content of the email changes.
- Enable security features on your account such as two-factor authentication.
- Change your password at a minimum every 90 days.
If you market your business using email marketing, then take a look at our article on “Essential Email Marketing Tips” which will help improve your email marketing campaigns and email open rates.