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Email – The Practical Magic

Email is an essential part of our daily communications. How did we ever do business without it? Today we are integrated. Email feels… well… natural. Our devices connect. We connect. We can talk to our devices and they can talk to us. They even have names. Siri can’t quite read our emails yet, but does take them down in dictation. And, more importantly, she can order us tomato soup and help celebrities cook for date night. All kidding aside, email has certainly advanced over the years and will continue to evolve at a rapid clip. As with all things “technology” there is a balance between the magic and the practical. When the magic falls short, the practical must take over. This applies to working with email. Here are some practical tips:

Keep Mail Folders (especially Inbox, Sent, and Deleted) Below 5,000 Items

Microsoft recommends a maximum of 5,000 items in any one folder. Once a folder reaches 10,000 items, the email application can become slow, unstable, or may need to be reconfigured. This is particularly true for the most commonly-used email folders: the Inbox, Sent, and Deleted Items. If you have 5,000 or more items in any of these folders, take some time and go through these folders to reduce their size.Many people keep all of their correspondence in their Inbox, Sent, and Deleted items, but these folders were originally designed to be temporary repositories of information (just like a physical inbox on your desk). This is particularly true if you use a Mac: because of the way in which the email applications for the Mac synchronize email, they can become very unstable if the “primary” email folders become bogged down with too many items. In order to avoid problems, these folders should contain only active items that you plan to respond to, file, or delete within a few days at most. Ideally, they should be completely empty when you leave work at the end of each day.

Create an Organized System of Folders to File Your Email

In order to keep your folders such as Inbox, Deleted, and Sent Items empty, you need to have a place to put all of the messages that end up in those folders. Each person works differently, and it is up to you to determine the folder structure that makes the most sense to you and your workflow, but to get started, we recommend the following:

Public Folders

If using an Exchange Server, create and use Public Folders to store business related correspondences so they become part of the company record. This will lighten your own Inbox allowing it to perform better and make for greater collaboration amongst your colleagues.

Personal

For items that are more personal or confidential in nature, create folders in your own mailbox but outside of your Inbox. Organize in a way that makes the most sense to you and your business.

Reference / To Do

Many times there are items that come in to your Inbox which require a bit more time to read, process, or respond to, or which contain content that you need to refer to actively for an ongoing project. File these messages that you don’t want to deal with immediately but need to keep handy for the immediate future in this folder. This will allow you to keep your primary folders (Inbox, Sent, Deleted) as clean as possible while still being able to keep important messages handy.
Options for folder structure that may work well for you and your business are to file by client, by vendor or by project. All of the major email applications contain a robust search feature to allow you to be able to find your messages, even across folders after they are filed.

Archive Older Items

As you continue to accumulate email, you will want to start to archive and organize your email by year. At the end of each year create a new folder for the previous year. If you keep your mailbox well-organized throughout the year using the above tips, this step should be as simple as creating the parent folder for the year and then dragging in all of the past year’s folders. This will ensure that each year you start off fresh with a clean mailbox while allowing you to easily find archived items in the future.

Delete, Do, Defer, Delegate

Once you set up your system, you are ready to begin managing incoming messages. By making your Inbox the central place for receiving important messages, you can go through it with the confidence that each item is something you need to deal with.
For every message in your Inbox:

  1. If it isn’t important, DELETE it immediately.
  2. If it can be done in two minutes or less, DO it (reply, file, call, etc.). Many messages can be responded to in 2 minutes or less. But if a message takes longer than two minutes to deal with, defer it.
  3. If you need to do it, but it takes longer than two minutes (including reading), DEFER (hold off on) it. For items that you need to defer, create a special folder that you can refer back to as soon as you have time to handle these items, such as a “Reference” folder (see above). Deferring a message means that you will review it later, when you have time, and the reasons to defer a message are:
    1. It cannot be dealt with in less than two minutes.
    2. It will take a while to read.
    3. It will require a carefully crafted response.
  4. If it isn’t for you or if there is someone who can handle the message for you, DELEGATE (forward) it.

Perform Regular Mailbox Management

Even with a neatly-organized mailbox structure of clearly labeled subfolders and a strict regimen of responding to, filing, and deleting messages, those of us who receive a large volume of email can still end up with more mail in our primary folders (Inbox, Sent, Deleted) than we can manage on a daily basis. In order to make sure that all of your mail is filed properly and that you don’t get overwhelmed, take time each week to make sure that your Inbox, Sent, and Deleted Items are clean (empty if possible), that everything has been filed correctly so that you can find it later, and that you’ve gone through and dealt with everything in your Reference folder (we recommend scheduling this as an event in your calendar).

Thanks for taking the time to read.