Help me deal with the large amount of work e-mail I send/receive each we
August 13, 2013 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Help me deal with the large amount of work e-mail I send/receive each week.

I get around 800 e-mails per week, and I send around 500.

Considering how much of my time is spent reading and writing e-mails, I think I could really benefit from being more strategic about how I deal with e-mail (both reading and writing).

I'd be curious to see links to especially helpful blog posts, articles, even books on this topic, as well as personal tips and tricks from people. One topic I'm especially interested in is learning to write shorter e-mails that still get across the message (I'm often guilty of writing 300+ word e-mails).

I realize this is a super broad question, but note that I'm not looking for broad and obvious answers. The more specific the better. Like, "use text expansion" or "set up an Outlook rule that does X."

For what it's worth:

- I use Microsoft Outlook in OSX;
- I already practice Inbox Zero and GTD;
- E-mail is the primary way I communicate with the people I work with;
- I work in a very fast-paced environment where I usually can't go more than 30 minutes without checking e-mails;
posted by JPowers to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Farnam Street just ran a nice article on exactly this topic: here.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:43 PM on August 13, 2013

If you're already doing Inbox Zero, what more do you need?

I have about 30 or so folders (IMAP; gmail "labels" under the hood) that I route mail into - many based on the particular list, others by content.

I'm not too worried about where stuff ends up, I rely on's search more than knowing exactly which folder to look in; I just know I have everything.

What's been particularly helpful is Keyboard Maestro. There are several high-traffic lists I need to follow, and for performance reasons, it's *much* better to keep those folders at zero as well. So I use Keyboard Maestro to help me sort those into archive folders - control-M gives me the macro palette, and then eg 'P' to move a message to production-changes.old or 'O' for oakland.old

This article was helpful on setting up the macros in Keyboard Maestro
posted by colin_l at 6:49 PM on August 13, 2013

At my old job, my function was part technical support and part sales. I sent a similar volume of emails on a daily basis. Many of them were repetitive responses to similar inquiries, where a stock response, slightly tailored to the particular inquiry, was called for.

I used a small utility like a macro that would store "canned response" type of text for me that I could access using keystrokes. I'd then edit it as needed. It saved me a ton of time.

It was called HotKeyboard Pro.
posted by mazienh at 6:52 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

800/500 is a bad, bad ratio, whether you are communicating with real people, or just processes. If you can't respond to 800 emails a week, from real people, you need to pare your email contacts, substantially. And you might need to substantially improve your email filters.

At one time, I was getting 1400 emails a day, mostly from SNMP traps, and other machine processes, and I had automated the receipt, and response action of 95% of them; otherwise, I would have drowned in the flood of email.

Think about that. I was sifting through 1400+ emails a day, looking for the 70 or so that might be from real people, with real issues.

"... (I'm often guilty of writing 300+ word e-mails). ..."

Your problems were solved, with technology from the mid '90s, but only if you don't keep poking the pigs you come across.
posted by paulsc at 7:04 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

0. Shorter emails
Try to understand what your target audience wants to know, and address that. If it's more than 200/300/whatever your limit is words, try to break it into repeatable components (see 3).

1. OneNote
That is your missing component to your workflow. OneNote is park of the Office system and allows you to quickly file away information into Notebooks/Tabs/Pages. It's lightweight, and superbly easy to use.

The link to Outlook email is thus: Outlook has the option to "Send to OneNote" any email. Meaning that those pesky emails that you currently need to file away and then find when you're trying to refer to historical information can instead be stored (as a Page) in a Tab of the relevant context. (be that for a client/line of business/whatever). OneNote saves them and the attachment and the categorization lends itself easily to later recollection.

2. Color coding in Outlook you can set-up color coding Rules that in my case helped immensely to deal with similar amounts of email. The colors/codes I used were:

- bold red - Unread, I'm the only person in the TO field
- bold black - Unread, I'm in the TO field with others
- bold grey - Unread, I'm in the CC field
- the regular (not bold) equivalents for the read versions

Sounds simple but at a glace on your inbox you'll clearly see which emails ask for YOUR attention versus group emails. Optionally add a 4th color (blue?) for manager/high importance marked emails.

3. Pre-set replies
As said below, pre-set replies really help. I stored mine in OneNote...

4. Outlook notifications
I set an "alert" for a popup for specific rules (see "New Items Alert" here) for those subjects/people that I knew I have to get back to ASAP. (Manager, sensitive clients, critical projects). I turned off notifications otherwise so that I could prepare information to get back to the rest of my emails. This meant I could focus on composing/sending more effective emails, thus reducing the volume of questions/requests coming in.
And yes, I would compose "long" replies in OneNote. (In one case one client had 17 bullet item set of questions - it took me a month to get back to him - I set a reminder to reply regularly and worked on the entire thing in OneNote).

5. Outlook "Remind me later" to set emails as tasks
Not sure if this is useful, but helped me with Inbox Zero. When you set a follow-up flag like so the email gets added to your Tasks list. After that I'd archive/delete/OneNote it. (inbox zero). During my "quiet time" (since I'm not getting distracted by emails) I work off my task list. Everything goes into the task list - everything, not just emails. How is this effective: say you have an email from Bob asking for information from Alice. You can send email to Alice, ask for information, flag email from Bob as follow up by 3 days from now. 3 days from now, you get a reminder - "Follow up: from Bob - I need information on XYZ from Alice". By this point either you have said information (send to Bob, mark complete, move on) or you don't - cue to reply to Bob that you're still working on it, email Alice for a reminder, and re-set the reminder for another 3 days.
This way the emails don't sit in your inbox; information isn't sitting in your "head"; and you can move on to the next task.

Perhaps some of those are redundant given GTD and Inbox Zero, but these things really helped me. Lots out there on OneNote if you're interested. Or memail me and I'll help! :-)
posted by olya at 7:15 PM on August 13, 2013 [10 favorites]

For any message that whose takeaway can be expressed in one line, send it in the subject line with [EOM] (end of message) afterwards. Like, instead of a mail with the subject "meeting changed" and a text reading "Mindy's out this week, so let's postpone our meeting til next Tuesday, remember we're all going to discuss the TPS reports" do an email with no text, just the subject line "TPS Mtg changed to Tues 8/15 3pm [EOM]"
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:21 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

One tip for keeping your emails short is having 1 topic per email because that's all that anyone is going to get out of reading it anyway. Also, bullet lists are your friend.

At a certain point discussions should ideally go offline; either IM, phone or in person.

If you're using emails to gather replies to specific questions you could use a google form to get all the replies directly into a spreadsheet instead of winding up with 100 email responses.

Are you using Outlook's smart folders? They're basically database queries. I have ones that are set up for the people I work with and keywords for projects so I can scan down the new emails in order of important people, important projects, etc. So like "Hey you have 4 emails from your boss" is higher up in the list than "Here's a bunch of emails about desk accessories from the department admin".
posted by bleep at 7:21 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lifehacker just ran an article today about this - link

Also, 0, 2 and 5 from what Olya said. 1 would be helpful, but many work places don't get OneNote as part of their MS Office deployment.

#2 has helped me focus on the critical emails that *need* to be answered by you, while #5 makes sure I don't miss responding to an important email.

Couple of other notes from a person who gets close to 1000 emails every week (not automated emails, but I am on the To or CC list)

1. Many emails are sent to me where I need to know and understand and pitch in only when I have to differ with or strengthen the argument/content in the email. My response required - 50% of the time

2. CYA emails also are about 30% of all emails I send or get. Unavoidable, but no action needed

In addition to the color coding, I also use Categories to route email to specific projects either by rules or manually.
posted by theobserver at 7:25 PM on August 13, 2013

posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:40 AM on August 14, 2013

You can reduce the number of emails you have to deal with by purposefully delaying the response to the ones you can get away with, especially if those emails are likely to result in follow-up emails asking for things the sender could really do without your help.
posted by grouse at 7:17 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

make the keyboard your friend
This post has probably been the single greatest time saver I've found in the past 3 years. Probably saves me 15 mins per day, which is massive. Needs a bit of investment in set up, but well worth it. I also have a bunch of VBA macros, but the quick steps function can do a lot of the same things

Search don't sort
I also don't file emails separately, but have one big storage folder as well as the inbox. I rely on search folders and general search to find what I need.

Email is often the wrong tool
Your issue is not the number of emails that you receive,which is fairly normal, but the number you send. 100 emails per day, even at 2 mins per email, is 3hr 20min, a huge chunk of your working day. Add in the time spend reading the emails you get, and you must be spending half your day on the email.

It seems likely that you are trying to do things by email that would better be done in another medium. Emails are a very poor way to collaborate and organise in a team; email works much better for one on one communication and mass notification. Alternatives include

- Doodle for organising meetings
- Wikis or google docs for crafting a document jointly
- yammer for non vital announcements and general queries
- IM/skype chat for quick queries
- One of any number of project management apps for allocating and tracking tasks (asana gets a lot of love)

It's hard to be more precise without knowing more about the nature of your work.
posted by Touchstone at 1:39 PM on August 14, 2013

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