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Recently I have started receiving more email than I can handle. Because of this I sometimes forget to reply to an important email, or I spend more time tracking and replying to emails than I would like.

Any good tips for improving email productivity? I use mostly GMail and Mac's default Mail client. Changing email client is an option if it improves productivity.

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closed as not constructive by 8088, Diago Sep 30 '11 at 6:55

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I'd suggest making this a community wiki since it asks for tips and with that, opinion. –  BloodPhilia Aug 16 '10 at 10:54
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Done. (15 characters) –  hpique Aug 16 '10 at 13:27
    
Well done ;) –  BloodPhilia Aug 16 '10 at 17:51
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9 Answers 9

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Here are my rules & tools for dealing with hundreds of messages a day. Adapt as it fits your style.

  • Automated filtering: Any mailing lists, automated alerts that I don't have to look at right away, minutes of daily meetings etc go into folders. At the end of the day I browse the folders for anything that may warrant more attention.
  • Folders: Some people are very good at classifying their archived mail into folders. I'm not. So folders are only used for automated or semi-automated filtering (sometimes it needs a manual pass). There are about 15 folders in use, under 4 or 5 branches.
  • Archiving/deleting: Personally I want to keep a record of any significant mail so I have large archives where others will delete more. I will delete out-of-office replies and other admin junk right away. The main point is to get as much as possible out of the inbox as soon as you can -- anything that does not need an answer from me goes into the archive (or is deleted) as soon as I see it: it has to leave the inbox.
  • The three minute rule: Will it take me 3 minutes or less to reply to a message? If yes, I answer as soon as I see it and archive.
  • Revisiting the inbox: How often you need to check the inbox depends on your situation. At my most frantic, I checked the inbox at every new mail alert, did the cleaning out as described above (including answering everything that falls under the 3 min rule). Then, about 4 times a day, I went for a longer session regarding the messages that need a longer reply.
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Ignore the fluff and don't procrastanate, if you can deal with something when it arrives then deal with it.

I'm using Outlook at the moment and for every email that hits my inbox I do one of the following (in roughly decending order for importance):

  • Read, reply to/forward/handle/deal with/etc, mark as complete, move to folder
  • Read, flag (either Red/Blue/Yellow for Now/Today/Later) and move to folder
  • Read, move to folder ("archive" it)
  • Delete (eg spam/junk mail)

My Inbox folder only contains unsorted emails, its "perfect" state is empty with all emails sorted into folders and flagged/ticked/archived.

Within the inbox, is a folder hierarchy that defines what the emails within relate to, so to find those I still need to handle I've got search folders that each find one of the three flags I use for Now/Today/Later.

I deal with the emails in the Now box ASAP.
The Today box has to be empty before I go home.
And the Later box is normally for keeping track of conversations I'm CC'd into and don't want to lose track of.

Strictly, the Now folder should always be empty as those emails should be replied to straight away, but if I'm in the middle of something (eg, replying to another "now" email) or wading through a backlog after a holiday I tend to flag everything first and then deal with it all together.

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You may find the new GMail Priority Inbox feature helpful.

I think it is aimed at people who get above a certain level of emails per day - for those like me who only get a few messages, it's overkill.

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step 1. Make good use of the Delete key.

I get tons of emails daily on the current project, if thee's any email thet gets sent that I know, or there's a reply later that includes the previous email - it goes to trash. Similarly, any that I read and think "yep, that's not my problem" goes to trash. If its important they can send it again :)

step 2. folders.

Sometimes you get emails you might need later, but don't care about right now. Move it to a folder and forget about it.

step 3. reply now, not later.

If you get an email that does requrie attention, if you can deal with it quickly, do so. Right now, immediately. Then you can delete it.

I still have nearly 300 emails in my 'todo' inbox, but you should see my deleted folder. If I didn't deal with them as above, I'd be even more swamped.

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Best thing I have found is to keep on top of it. Check your email constantly when you are able and deal with it now rather then at the end of the day when you have a hundred or so to read through.

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In addition to using folders for longer-term emails I recommend using a calendars, to-do lists, and people-dependent lists. Gmail convienently allows you to grab a link to an email for later use. You can then paste this link into:

  • A calendar with automated reminders. For instance, you might not need to look carefully at the burning man preparation email until Aug 25th.
  • A specific to-do list. For instance you could move a bug report to your work to-do list if you want to avoid doing work when you are away from your desk.
  • A person-dependent list. For example you will often want to confer with your boss before you reply on an issue. Its nice to have a boss list of items that you will deal with when you boss comes by.

The beauty of this system is that you can archive emails if you have migrated them to a more appropriate list and save your inbox for those new emails that come your way. And unlike folders, calendars automatically remind you, while documents support adding extra context information to the emails.

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One feature I rely on with MacOSX Mail that hasn't been mentioned yet is Smart Folders. You can use such criteria as date sent, address group, priority, etc. to filter mail automatically wherever it is and have an "important" smart folder to pay more attention to than a bloated "inbox".

Also, gmail has a nifty alias feature you could use to sign up for low priority things like mailing lists, online shopping, etc, and easily filter them. Or, conversely, you can give out a high-priority email address…

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Mail.app allows you to make rules based on "Sender is in my Address Book" and "Sender is in my Previous Recipients" which could let you highlight mail that's probably more important than the fluff that's overloading you.

If you're being buried by people you know, sometimes adding a rule to dehighlight if you're CC'd instead of in the To: list can emphasize the things you really do need to act on.

Previous answerers alluded to a GTD-type methodology and that definitely works for me. If you're not familiar with GTD, this flowchart can help: GTD Workflow Chart at lifehack.org. I keep a "Waiting for" folder, "Needs Action" and only a few "Reference" folders.

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Watch the Inbox Zero presentation by Merlin Mann for Google Tech Talks and read his articles to get some ideas.

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