Most big companies love e-mail. Mine certainly does anyway. Personally, I still quite enjoy the conspiracy theory that a bunch of aliens came to Earth in the 80s and thought that the best way to slowly make the human race destroy itself is to simply give them e-mail and watch them work themselves into the ground over the next few decades. 

Jokes aside though, e-mail is certainly a useful tool, but its versatility is also its downfall. Over time several start-ups have tried to augment or replace e-mail (Yammer is one example, Workplace is another) in attempt to properly thread conversation and avoid exclusions. The problem with all of these approaches though is how universal e-mail is for inter-organizational communication. 

Unless another tool gets to the same level of popularity there will always be a reason for falling back to e-mail, which is why – even if something better comes along – we’ll still need to deal with its merits and limitations.

I wanted to write a blog post about how I organize my e-mail as it may help you too. 

Limit the amount of e-mail rules

If your organization uses discussion groups then you may want e-mails to that group to go into a folder. I personally find it very difficult to find the time to check these folders regularly, so I always set up a rule that excludes e-mails that have me on To from going straight into a folder. 

Rules can still be useful in some cases, but in general, I think simpler is better. 

Review group membershps often

I try and have a regular clear out of e-mail groups. Not only does it avoid you having permissions that you don’t need, it also avoids you spending time on e-mails that are no longer relevant to you.

Switch off notifications

If you use Outlook you’ll be familiar with the constant pings and the little e-mail envelope next to the Outlook logo. I personally turn these off as soon as I install Outlook. This helps with the next point.

It’s not synchronous – so don’t make it synchronous

People shouldn’t expect an instant response to an e-mail and you shouldn’t set an expectation that you are going to respond instantly. To help your work life balance I’d recommend that you set blocks of time aside to go through your e-mail backlog and then leave it alone. If people really need you they can call or text or use a messaging app. Most things in most jobs can wait at least a working day. 

Discussions usually fail

In all the teams I’ve worked in I’ve never really seen a discussion “work” in e-mail. People add random people, they create forks, they respond to older messages. If you want to discuss something asynchronously there are better tools. You can send instructions/links via e-mail and ask people to participate, but actually having a discussion over e-mail has never really worked for me. 

Keep your inbox tidy

With any e-mail that comes in ask yourself if it asks you to action anything. If it does not you can archive the e-mail. If it is an action that you can do in less than a few minutes you may want to respond instantly. Otherwise you can create a task, calendar item, or to do list item, to follow up in detail later. I personally use the calendar a lot as it helps me allocate time when I have time. It also naturally pushes meetings and other activities out if I get busy and allows me to swap items back and forth based on priority. You may choose to use your work item management tool instead or any other tool that you’re comfortable with. 

These are just a few tips and habits that I find helpful to keeping myself organized despite having to deal with hundreds of e-mails a day. If I think of more, I’ll write a part 2 of this article. I hope these are helpful to you as well.