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How to Manage Your Email More Effectively at Work

Like most busy folks, Sally wants to use technology to boost her productivity and simplify her life, not make it more complicated.

Wouldn't it be nice if your Inbox could look like the paper pile on the right, not the one on the left? Here's how to start sorting through your email.

Wouldn't it be nice if your Inbox could look like the paper pile on the right, not the one on the left? Here's how to start sorting through your email.

How to Handle Email Effectively at Work

Do you feel like you get way too much email at work? Do you roll your eyes and sigh when you open up your email account and find hundreds of messages waiting to be opened, scanned, deleted, or dealt with?

Some days it feels like it takes more time to attend to email tasks than it does to actually get any work done. Email wasn’t meant to make our workdays busier. Email was developed as a way to speed up the delivery of important messages and reduce excess paper waste. But the reality is that email technology is not a panacea for improving the efficiency of your business communications. Why? Because like all technologies, email is completely dependent upon how you choose to use it to meet your needs. The adage "garbage in, garbage out" applies to how you use (or abuse) your work email accounts.

In her book Managing Your E-mail: Thinking Outside the Inbox, communications expert Christina Cavanagh provides tips on how to:

  • Effectively control and filter what ends up in your Inbox
  • Identify and manage trivial and low value messages that create clutter in your Inbox
  • Understand and manage the problems caused by group emailing and distribution lists

The book also offers useful tips and suggestions for how to avoid legal problems caused by the inappropriate use of email in the workplace. Here are some simple reminders to help you steer clear of common email pitfalls.

1. Always remember that emails are permanent records.

There is no such thing as deleted electronic mail. Even though an email may appear to be removed from your system, you have no way of knowing if your message has been deleted by the recipient. In fact, once you send an email, there's no way of knowing what will happen to it. It could be forwarded, copied, or saved as a screen capture. Only use work email for professional and legitimate messages. Always avoid including any information in your work-related emails that you wouldn’t want to be publicly known or scrutinized by your supervisors.

2. Never leave your email unattended.

Always protect your email account with passwords and make sure that your email programs are not left opened on your laptop or desktop computer. Cavanagh notes that if someone else accesses your email account to send offensive, potentially illegal, or damaging information on your behalf, it may be very difficult to prove that you weren't the author of that message.

3. Be transparent about your organization's policies regarding email usage, storage, and monitoring in the workplace.

Use banners at the end of emails to notify users (both senders and receivers) of their legal rights and responsibilities regarding email transmissions. Banners can be used to notify email users if and how their email transmissions will be monitored. An excerpt from Managing Your Email provides sample wording for a banner notifying government email network users about limits to privacy:

"Use of this [email] network constitutes consent to monitoring, retrieval and disclosure of any information stored within the network for any purpose including criminal prosecution."

The next time you send or receive an email from a corporation or government body, look closely and see if they use a disclosure banner in their emails.

You glance at an e-mail. You give more attention to a real letter.

— Judith Martin (Miss Manners)

Is that free e-book you got for signing up for an e-newsletter really worth the extra clutter in your Inbox?

Is that free e-book you got for signing up for an e-newsletter really worth the extra clutter in your Inbox?

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4. Stop signing up for email subscriptions you'll never read.

I once had an extra email account that looked just like this one. I kept putting off dealing with the emails and so they just kept piling up. I eventually decided to just shut the whole account down. I had set it up to read e-newsletter, feeds and other free subscriptions, but I just didn't have the time to read all the free e-letters that I had signed up for.

5. Use email less often.

Controlling the number of emails you generate helps control the amount of email you get in return.

If you want to cut back on the amount of junk email and useless information you receive, be mindful of how much email you send to other people. Cavanagh notes that what we love most about email is also the thing we hate most about it, too. She says, "We love it because we can send the same message to many people with a single keystroke; we hate it because we get too many of these messages.”

From using the "reply all" feature instead of taking the time to select appropriate recipients, to forwarding "inspirational or funny" chain letters, most of us have engaged in bad email practices that slow us and our co-workers down. Try adopting a few good email habits such as these:

  • Keep your messages short and to the point.
  • Keep your distribution lists up to date and remove email recipients who are no longer part of a department or actively involved in a shared project.
  • Do not use your organization's distribution lists to promote personal projects or your kid's next fundraising drive. Share these types of notices in the lunchroom or a common pin board.

What do you think? What are your biggest pet peeves about managing your email? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Reminder: Don't become too reliant on email!

No matter how efficient you become in managing your email and keeping it from taking over your workday, sometimes a personal phone call is the best way to deal with a situation. But if the thought of picking up the phone and talking to a real human being makes you nervous, relax, you are in good company. There are many people who would rather send a text or an email than talk over the phone. An online article in The Science of Us offers some tips and insights from psychologists on why some of us are afraid of making phone calls and what we can do to get over that fear.

Bonus Emailing Tip: If one of the things that is driving you crazy about using email is the fact that people take forever to reply to your messages, perhaps it's time to examine the tail end of your message. Are you ending your email message with a specific, clear call to action or is your sign-off too wishy-washy?

Instead of closing a lengthy message with, "What do you think about this plan?" try asking a more specific question. You could try asking, "Which of the five points I've listed do you think we should implement right away?" You are asking a specific question that relates to points you made in your email and you are creating a sense of urgency by asking which items need the most attention right now.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Sally Hayes


Kieran Gracie on April 28, 2013:

Very useful Hub, SMD2012 - voted accordingly. It is always tempting to sit and read all those emails for hours instead of doing some useful work. I try to force myself to do no more than half an hour 'doing' emails, and every month I delete any emails that are over 6 months old on the basis that, no matter how useful they might be, I will never get around to reading them anyway.

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