It is amazing how much time email can take up. I recently made some changes in the way I work with email and it really surprised me how much time it saves me each day. There are a number of ways you can streamline your email process.
The first step should be reducing the volume of incoming mail. Unsubscribe from mailing lists you’ve lost interest in (don’t forget Yahoo, Google, and similar “Groups”). Same thing with Usenet Newsgroups. Are you getting unwanted mail from e-commerce sites? If it is a site you do business with, log on to your account with them and check your communication options. Many have an option to only send you mail regarding actual orders (status, shipping notices, etc.) but no marketing mail. If it’s a site you don’t do business with, but is a reputable site, follow the unsubscribe instructions they give at the bottom of each email. If all else fails, blacklist the sender via your spam or other blocking filter.
Many of us have multiple email accounts. One for business, one for e-commerce, one for family and friends and even one for blogging. If you have to go to different websites or use different programs to check each one, a lot of time is wasted logging in and out checking each one. Multiply that by how many times each day you make the rounds of all your email accounts. If you don’t really need that many, you might be able to drop one or more of them. If possible, migrate all your correspondence to one email address. If you can’t do that, then you should try to get all your email in one inbox. There are a few ways to accomplish this.
One way would be to set up all but your favorite account to forward your mail to the favorite one, or perhaps a new one you create for just this purpose. This also works as a great first step toward reducing the number of email accounts you maintain. The downside of this method is that you will be handling all mail through a single account, and all your replies will come from the account you are using. This may confuse some recipients. You can mitigate this confusion by placing a note in your signature line explaining what you are doing and suggesting that everyone please start using your preferred address.
Some email providers will retrieve your mail from other accounts, allowing you to manage all your mail in one place. This gets all your mail into one inbox, while allowing each email address to keep its own identity. This is one option if you plan to keep separate email accounts for different functions.
Use A Local Email Client
Back in “The Old Days” everyone used a local program to manage their email. While many people still use an email client, especially with ISP or workplace provided email accounts, web-based email has become much more common, especially among the free email providers. The advantages to the user are virtually no setup, ease-of-use, and the ability to do mail anywhere, on any device with a web browser. The advantages to the provider are a drastic reduction in need for tech support as well as the ability to tightly control the user experience (read “advertise”).
There’s A Better Way
If you are willing to make a one-time investment in time and effort, and possibly enlist the help of a techie friend if you are not so inclined, then you can set up an email client. Using an email client will do several things for you. It will allow you to collect all your email in one place, with a single look and feel. No more bouncing around to different websites and systems. It will give you an ad-free email experience. No more distracting links to your email provider’s other properties, nor ads for products and services you don’t want and don’t need. It will give you total control over your email experience. Size and place windows so they are easier for you to work with. Manage all your contacts in one place, and share them among all your email accounts. Share email easily among accounts, too, even replying and forwarding across account borders.
Better filters with more sophisticated rules. Spam protection, blacklisting, and whitelisting to remove distractions from unwanted mail. Download mail in the background so you don’t waste time waiting for each email to load. Specify whether or not to display embedded images. Download all your mail and work offline – great for slower connections and dialup (free up your line for calls while you’re reading and answering email) , as well as for working on the go when there’s no WiFi or 3G connection.
More Time-saving Tips
Receiving and displaying your email as efficiently as possible speeds up email handling tremendously. Streamlining the way you work with email helps, too.
Once you’ve got all of your email coming in to a single in-box, you can deal with it in a linear, first-in, first-out fashion. Open the first piece of new mail. Deal with it right now. If an action is required, like a reply, do it immediately. Once you are done, but not before, move on to the next piece of mail. Doing this helps you fully focus on each piece of mail. Unimportant items are quickly discarded. Important items receive your undivided attention and are promptly handled.
Avoid Procrastination Enablers
I used to like to sort my email into different folders based on mailing list, sender, and other criteria. I had filters set up to do the sorting automatically. I was pretty proud of myself, thinking how efficient I was. In reality, I’d just been making it easier to procrastinate. Sure, it all looked organized, but I wasn’t reading and replying in a timely manner. The folders gave the illusion of having done something, and enabled me to empty the in-box faster, but left lots of unread mail. Experience has taught me that the best plan is as I described, handling all mail in the order it is received. No flagging, filing, or other procrastinating. If I don’t deal with it now, chances are it will sit until It ends up being too old to matter and gets deleted.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions on handling email in a simple and efficient manner. Comments are open!