by Resa Kerns, Associate Law Librarian for Emerging Technologies

Texting, instant messaging, and social platforms have become the communication channels of choice for many of us these days. But to paraphrase Missouri native son, Mark Twain, the reports of email’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Email is still very much alive in the business and professional world, and learning to manage it effectively is an important professional skill. Mismanaging email can be a costly and dangerous practice, often resulting in missed deadlines and opportunities, strained relationships, and unnecessary stress!  By establishing good habits now, you can spend less time mucking around in your email inbox, and more time doing the stuff you really want or need to do!

Change Your Perspective: Take Email Management Seriously

The “always on” approach to email has become a way of life for many of us. We feel like we are in our email constantly, but most of the time we are just fiddling with it in passing, giving it only part of our attention.  Managing our inbox this way often leaves us with a bloated pile of email that we’ve scanned but not really processed, and important emails are often obscured or lost in the shuffle. In more recent years, we’ve also seen a trend towards the “never on” approach – those people who never check their email. Their results are equally problematic.

If you tend towards either end of the spectrum, your email issues will only be magnified when you start working in a professional environment. Managing your email is a serious task, and you have to give it time and focused attention. Give your email work access to your BRAIN, as well as your eyes.  The almost-magic result of carving out time to focus on your email is that you will get much more done, in much less time, with far less stress.

Change Your Habits: Process Emails Using a System

Once you’ve made up your mind to take your email seriously, you will want to develop a system that is simple, and that works for YOU. I want to recommend that you aim for Inbox Zero– clear out your inbox on a regular basis, preferably at least daily. Think about your email inbox as one of those pneumatic tubes that you can still see at the bank drive-thru. It’s terrific for getting stuff around but you don’t want to store stuff in it. That would just clog up the tube, and render it useless. Instead, you want to figure out the right destination for each item, and send it on its way.

The “destinations” are really up to you, and should be tweaked to fit you and your work. But here’s a fairly standard, simple system to get you started:

  • DELETE  – When you first look at your email, see how many emails you can delete without even opening them. Quite often you can tell from the subject line whether it is something you need to read or respond to. Do this even before opening and reading high-priority mail. You’ll already be in much better shape to start your day productively.
  • ARCHIVE – If you’ve got stuff you want to keep, put it somewhere other than your main inbox.  Make use of folders/labels/tags to organize it – but don’t go overboard. Consider filing emails by year/quarter/month, and then rely on the email search tools to find what you need.
  • DO IT NOW – If a relatively quick action is required, just do it. Time management gurus tell us that if it takes 2 minutes or less, it’s far more efficient to do the task than to spend time tracking it in another system.
  • DEFER IT FOR LATER – For more involved tasks, save it for a later time by moving it to your calendar or your task list (if you don’t use a calendar or a task list, now would be a good time to start!)

If you still find the idea of managing your email daunting, start small! Pick one technique or process, tweak it to fit you, and practice until it becomes a habit. Then do it again. You’ll reap the benefits of good email management for the rest of your professional life.