The first message one could consider email was sent more than 30 years ago, and that's probably when people began associating angst and uncertainty with the words "Inbox" and "unread messages." The tools available to read and send emails have advanced considerably since then, but what you actually do with all that chatter, without eating up entire days of work time, is up to you. Luckily, we've covered a wealth of filtering and processing methods and software tweaks that make email less stressful and time-consuming over the years, and a list of our top 10 productive email boosters is after the jump.
10. Mark/Prioritise messages sent only to you
If you're inside a big firm, or just part of a big email group, you probably get a lot of messages that aren't really addressed to you directly, but they land in the same bin as the others. Differentiate between need-to-see-it direct mail and group FYI blasts with colour coding, available in the settings for Outlook and Thunderbird, or the simple > and >> arrows enabled in Gmail.
9. Set up essential filters
Rapid-fire responses and inbox clearing get pretty old if you have to do them every day—the best way to actually knock down your over-bearing email is to figure out where it's coming from and place it where it won't bother you immediately. Using a strong set of customisable filters, you can separate needed information and tasks from repetitive reminders. Don't know exactly who should be filtered out? Use the Mail Trends tool to visualise your mail volume any way you'd like. (original Mail Trends post).
8. Master advanced message search (Gmail)
A big part of what sets Gmail apart from the wealth of other (totally competent) web-based email providers is its archive now, search later ethos—spend a little time once setting up persistent searches, and you won't have to spend time again digging through scads of messages to find the right one. Adam led us through Gmail's search functionality back when Gmail was still a new thing, but the lessons are just as helpful today.
7. Process email in batches
Sometimes we're our own worst enemies when it comes to email clutter. Sending "before I forget" messages on off hours, reading email when there's no time to act on it, and having loose reading and responding schedules all contribute to that feeling of being under a high-volume waterfall. Best-selling author Tim Ferriss offers his eight tips that help you how to keep email out of your evenings and weekends.
6. Retrieve a file via email:
If you're the type that leaves their email client open all the time, this trick could be a real neck-saver, or just a neat way to grab a file. Using a keyword and a filename, you can set up Mail.app on Macs or Outlook on PCs to send you your files. If nothing else, you might convince your co-workers that you have magic email powers, and perhaps dissuade them from ever spamming you with quintuple-forwarded "jokes" again—that alone should save you some time and groan-induced headaches. (Original Mac and Windows version posts).
5. Group and organise your contacts
It might sound obvious to some, but far too few people utilise and harness the power of contact grouping. Whether it's a project you're collaborating on, a group of in-the-know friends you regularly share jokes and videos with, or just a one-time blast email you're slowly adding names to, grouping is super-easy in Gmail, but Outlook and Thunderbird allow for nicknamed groups as well. Find your "Jokes" group almost going out to "Jon" the boss? Edit your auto-complete entries in Outlook with NK2View, or follow one Macworld editor's tips for avoiding mix-ups. (Original NK2View post)
4. Process/organise your email with a trusted system
Whether personal or professional, pressing or put-off-worthy, your email needs a place to go and not get lost in the shuffle or take up unnecessary screen, or mental, space. Gina's preferred system is a three-folder Trusted Trio, which she derived from productivity guru Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero theories, and both are mainstays of our thinking here at Lifehacker. But we've also taken a peek at other systems that might work better for some, including an Outlook-specific, folder-and-flag-heavy "Zero Email Bounce" and the baby-stepping Inbox 0.5. And if you believe your inbox and to-do list should operate in perfect harmony, you can't go wrong with Remember the Milk's Gmail integration extension for Firefox. (Original Zero Email Bounce post) (Original Inbox 0.5 post).
3. Never forget an attachment
Few moments warrant a forehead smacking more than getting an "I don't see the attachment" reply ... five minutes before you're about to board your vacation flight. Avoid such slip-ups with the Gmail Attachment Reminder Greasemonkey script, a similar Outlook attachment reminder macro, or just develop a system for never forgetting attachments. None are fool-proof, but they might slow you down just enough to realise QuarterlyResults.xls is not where it should be. (Original posts on Gmail, Outlook, and routine techniques).
2. Consolidate Multiple Email Addresses with Gmail
If you've read this far, you've likely realised we're pretty big fans of Gmail around here, but this hack is a great reason why. You can import mail from nearly any account into a common inbox, send and reply to mail from those same addresses, and generally put all your various email needs into one container, without having to send an address change notice to your entire contacts list.
1. Automate Common Phrases and Lines with AutoHotKey/Texter
Some emails represent a true expression of unique ideas and conversational exchange, but a lot of them are simply "Thanks for the link!" or "Call me with any concerns" and the like. Our own Adam Pash realised this, got busy with AutoHotKey and came up with Texter, a simple-but-effective means of pasting commonly-used text, code, signatures, and other lines into any space on your Windows desktop. Part of his inspiration was just how helpful keystroke-replacing AutoHotKey was in knocking down repetitive email, and it holds true for similar tools like TextExpander for Mac and Snippits for Linux. If you're a Thunderbird user who doesn't need system-wide text replacement, check out the QuickText extension. (Original QuickText post).
What inbox helpers and tools did we miss? How do you keep your important mail close at hand without losing the less-important stuff? Share your tips, techniques, and triage theories in the comments.