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Get Your Tech Together Week: Better Email

gytt: better email

We’re wrapping up Get Your Tech Together Week on the blog: We’ve covered Online Security, Calendars, Going Paperless, and Backing up your computer.  Today’s post focuses on a part of modern life that most of us find insufferable: Email.

I remember when email was cute, delightful even. In 1993, I met a guy from New York on an airplane, and rather than give him my phone number, I told him about AOL, and “email”. He promptly got an account so we could keep in touch, and what started as a friendly correspondence blossomed into a long distance romance. The AOL “You’ve Got Mail” guy would make my heart skip a beat, because it was almost always a letter from him: I don’t think anyone else in my life had email at the time. Merlin Mann, email guru and author of Inbox Zero, describes those early days where, “every email was like getting a little hug from somebody, and I was returning it with a little hug.”

Eventually, I began to receive emails from more people than just my future husband— friends, family, solicitors, businesses, ruthless marketers, spammers, chain letters, and down-on-their-luck Arabian princes. Email— the sheer volume of it— became the bane of my existence like it is for so many: Impossible to keep up, difficult to interpret, and let’s not even start with the dreaded “Reply All”.

I can’t pretend I’m going to cure your email woes, but I can help you have a better email experience by sharing some of my best tips for processing and managing it. Let’s dive in.

Upgrade your app

Most people I know answer their email in the program that came with their computer or phone. There are so many new email clients and apps that add great functionality to your email experience, though, so it might be time to upgrade. Mailbox (OS X, iPhone, Android) lets you swipe through your emails like you’re trolling Tinder, making quick work of archiving or deleting ones you don’t need. It also has an innovative tool that let’s you toss emails you can’t deal with now, and have them reappear when you can (later today, tomorrow, next week, etc.). Inbox (iOS, Android), made by Google, helps you see the more important emails easily, grouping together things like “Promotions” and “Updates” out of the way and into nested folders. It will also scan your emails for airline, hotel and car rental confirmations and construct trip itineraries where everything is organized and grouped together. Boxer (iOS, Android) plays nicely with other cloud apps, letting you easily attach a file from Dropbox, or automatically send an email to your Evernote account. It also lets you fire off “quick responses” (got it, thank you, the file you asked for is attached, etc.) without having to type them out, and has enterprise-level security.

Of the above, only Mailbox has a desktop client (for Mac only), but a desktop app like Postbox is both Mac and PC friendly: In addition to being beautifully designed, it will let you juggle multiple accounts in one spot, keep favorite folders or tags handy, and even open “tabs” like you would on a browser so you can keep an eye on multiple conversations at once. It also has Dropbox, One Drive and Box integration, making it easy to add large attachments without clogging people’s Inboxes (feel free to share this with that aunt who is constantly sending you 15MB pictures of her cat). All of these apps offer an improvement and streamlining of your current email environment, which should translate into some serious productivity hikes.

Ruthlessly Unsubscribe

Here’s what I know for sure: Shopping online begets emails from merchants… which beget more shopping online. Coupons and sale notices sound like they’re saving you money, but they just make you spend more than you would if you didn’t receive them (and all that browser shopping is a distraction from work too). I find that every month the “promotional” emails i get from stores starts to pile up, and I need to dedicate some time to unsubscribing. It can be tempting to hang on to them because AAAHHHH WHAT IF I MISS A CHANCE TO GET SOMETHING ON SSALE??? Websites like Coupon Sherpa and RetailMeNot have your back when you need to shop— merchant emails are just clutter. Apps like or Unlistr make unsubscribing easy, or you can just find that little link at the bottom and end your relationship amicably.

Write Right

Inbox tennis is a sport I’d rather not play: It’s when you lob responses back and forth, never getting to the end of your conversation, and you get the feeling that a 60-second phone call could have been faster. Here are some tips for writing a more effective email that’s likely to result in a quicker match.

Make the subject relevant: You may have started the email thread by talking about “Epic Labor Day BBQ!”, but if you now want your friend to introduce you to their boss, put the ask in the subject so it’s easy to identify and find.

Embrace formatting: Asks, inquiries, dates or important information can get lost in an email that someone is rush-reading through. Use bullets, bold or underline to set them apart, so they’re easy to see.

Keep it Short: No one reads anymore. Keep it brief and you will decrease the likelihood that your message gets glossed over. And don’t be overly flowery for formal. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

One question per email: I hate to say this, because it makes us all sound like neanderthals, but I have found that it’s much more effective to stick to one question per email. Otherwise I often get one thing addressed but not another, prompting me to write another email, and so on…

gytt: better email

Your Inbox isn’t a task manager

You read an email, but can’t address it right now. So, you leave it in your Inbox for later. Tomorrow, you’ll read it again, ignore it, then read it again because you forgot what was in it…and so on. Pretty soon you’ve spent more time reading it than the time it would take to actually address what’s in it… and that’s assuming it doesn’t get buried under new emails and you forget about it all together. This is precisely why your inbox sucks at being a task manager, or a reminder system for anything important at all. And yet many of us use our Inbox this way— if the email is in there, it will remind me to get something done: When the job is done, I can delete or archive the email.

I say there’s a better way. Much like I outlined in the Going Paperless post yesterday, ideally you want to:

1. read an email once.
2. Extract important information from it, like tasks or dates
3. Put those in a task manager and/or calendar
4. Archive or delete the email.

This way, you can quickly process your emails, getting rid of what you no longer need, writing down tasks and dates as you go. Then you can set out to do your work, focusing on getting things done, not mining your Inbox for information (or getting distracted with new emails).

Try it this way: It might take some getting used to, but I promise it will help you focus and give you the mental clarity that a cluttered Inbox can obfuscate.

Remember the Telephone

Human beings have communicated face to face for millennia. We have only recently in our history begun to communicate long distance— first by voice, and now by written word. Emails and texts are missing so much nuance— our inflection, our body language, sarcasm— and we’ve all had the experience of having an email or text be wildly misinterpreted. It can be devastating. Sometimes subject matter is better discussed over the phone or in-person. Email has become the way we all communicate, but don’t let your laziness or the status quo prevent you from making the right decision about when to discuss things in the flesh.

And that wraps up the Get Your Tech Together Week— Did I miss anything? I loved putting this series together and will totally do another one with your help. What should I break down next? Let me know in the comments. 

Pictures borrowed from:  Stephanie Kelley

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