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Effective use of Email.

Introduction

The avalanche of email that many users receive is a major problem for many organisations. Employees fighting their way out of dozens, or hundreds of emails a day are probably not performing their duties. What’s more email that hasn’t been effectively dealt with upon receipt is going to mount further and further up, and may be the cause of undue stress and hinder productivity.

Folders

Quite simply, set them up and use them. All material related to specific projects or clients should be stored together, including your replies.

For instance if you have three clients, Acme, Bert Bros and Company C then set up a folder for each of them. Even better is to name the folder like so:

client_acme
client_company_c

client_bert_bros

I’ve deliberately made all the names lower case and added the underscore character, this is really just an old naming convention and you don’t have to comply with it, but it may make back-ups easier if you are running IMAP email on a Linux/Unix server.

Other name conventions may help your filing system, prefix all you personal folders with “personal_”, you might consider having a “lists_” and “news_” folders for various mailing lists and subscriptions, and so on.

If you need to file by date consider how your email software sorts, most are fairly unintelligent about sorting and will do so purely alphabetically, so if you are using dates consider using the yyyy-mm-dd naming format, which will always sort correctly.

Store replies in same folder

One can set up many email clients to store sent mail in the same folder that the reply came from. This ensures that if you are filing your incoming mail properly that your reply will be kept in an appropriate place too. However new mail is normally just stored in the Sent folder, you must remember to move that email to the appropriate folder too.

Brevety

Brevity is the first defence in the deluge of email that you receive, a quick message that can be actioned and deleted by just skimming the subject is far more efficient than forcing the recipient to actually open the email to read the message.

Consider the following; a message entitled “leaving”, which could be a member of staff resigning, someone leaving the office now, or just their plans to go to the pub after work.

The message body actually read:

I’m leaving at 5:30 and going to the pub. Coming?

So why bother with a message content at all? The following with <eom> (end of message) as a subject would provide the same message and save the recipient time by not needing to open it.

I’m leaving at 5:30 and going to the pub. Coming? <eom>

Shorthand & Acronyms

Acronyms that may be useful shorthand in subjects:

  • EOM End Of Message
  • RR Response required
  • AR Action Required
  • ATTACH Contains attachemnt
  • PERS Personal
  • CONT Continued
  • MEET Meeting
  • MINUTES Message contains minutes of meeting.

Your organisation may have your own terms and general language shorthand, use them, and create new ones. Make your email a more efficient messaging system.

Keep an Empty Inbox.

The easiest way to stay on top of email is to keep you inbox empty. Let’s assume you have a regime for dealing with email; now when the mail is read, you should try and deal with it immediately.

Deal with it doesn’t necessarily mean you read it all, it doesn’t mean you have to reply, or actually do anything. It does mean that you file it in the correct folder, possibly add an item to your to-do list or calendar.

Try and have a 3-minute rule (buy an egg timer!); if something comes in that you could do right now in three minutes, then do it. Finish the job right now and it’s over with. Anything that takes longer than that you’ll have to use your own judgement on, either file, forward, respond or delete. Whatever happens make sure it’s gone from the inbox.

You don't have to finish reading everything you start - file or delete it if it can't hold your interest.

The Inbox is not a to-do list

Nor for that matter is email useful as a calendar, a diary or a file-system etc but this is exactly how most users treat email.

Some users store documents in your email when they are better stored externally from the email programme.

Tasks are emailed to self (and others) as reminders rather than being properly added to a to-do list.

Appointments aren’t listed in the Calendar application, but are emailed and flagged.

Email reading routines

How often do you read email? Do you keep hitting the refresh button waiting for mail to arrive? Do you respond to incoming mail the moment you see it, or hear it arrive? Do you just check once a day and then find out that the presentation you’ve been working on for 5 hours has been cancelled? You need an email reading routine.

Firstly you need to consider what your ‘real’ job is. It’s not likely to be Director of Email Reading. So spending the day chained to the Inbox is a Bad Thing. Once you have appreciated that your real work lay elsewhere the next factor is to consider how important email is to you; how often do you really get important email? Most email is personal, advertising or Spam. Some will receive reams of e-group / mailing list emails, very little of which are immediately relevant to your work.

Try the following, if you currently check email every 10 minutes, try changing that to every 20. Don’t cheat, don’t hit that spend and receive mail button.

The ideal situation is you read you email regularly enough to have relevant information, but not so regularly that you are a slave to the inbox.

I’ve weaned myself to 30 minutes and find I get more real work done, and then spend a few minutes every half an hour dealing with anything interesting or important.

My mailing list emails are pre-filtered for me using procmail and I read them as appropriate and most importantly I don’t read everything; just skim the subjects and immediately delete the message if I’m not interested in it. I may have missed some fascinating emails, but I’ve got some work done instead. With the mailing lists I don’t keep a copy either, I make sure it’s deleted after it’s read; if the message is very useful I may keep it for a while or add it to a separate documentation, such as one I keep for useful Linux tips.

IMAP rather than POP

IMAP email has several advantages over POP. Firstly, it remains on your server, so as you move between computers your email follows you – all your email, and it’s stored in the correct folders.

Procmail and Filters.

Procmail is a system that allows the server to automatically examine a message as it arrives on the file-system or in your in box and move it, forward it elsewhere, delete it or alter it in some manner. Most email clients have additional filters that will perform a similar function, which you will have to use if you are still using a POP email account.

With an IMAP account procmail will perform the filtering for you, so as you download your mail, some of it will be pre-filtered for you, and be in the correct directories. The filtering could be for your mailing list, messages from certain individuals, or do some basic Spam filtering on messages.

Return to Inbox

You may like to consider to set your email “Return to the Inbox” rather than opening the next email.

Tools > Options > Select Return To Inbox from drop down.

This has the major benefit of leaving the unread settings intact and not opening Spam mail or mail with potential viruses or exploits. However this now means that you have to physically choose to open the next mail. On the keyboard this is easily achieved by pressing up or down arrow to the next mail and then enter, using a mouse one would double click on the message to read.

Outlook shortcuts

Ctrl + N: New message (if in messages).

Ctrl + V (paste) to start a new message with the contents of the clipboard. Unfortunately this starts a new email in rich text format, which can easily be changed with Alt + O (format) then Alt + T (plain text).

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