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For email to be useful to us rather than a burden, we need to take control and choose how we use it.  Like anything, decisions need to be made, and it’s the decision making that we are putting off rather than the task itself.

How often?

A vital decision to be made is how often we check our email, and how often we will deal with it.  It’s rarely necessary to be notified whenever a new email comes in, unless you are waiting for something specific and urgent.  Once or twice a day is usually enough, if you want to have a life. 

For how long?

How much of your life do you want to spend on emails?  If you feel as many people do, that email is taking over your life, or preventing you from getting on with other work, you can change how you deal with it to reduce the amount of time to a more reasonable level.  Setting a time limit, prioritizing, and doing as much as you can within the time in a prioritized and organized way will make a big difference.

So, decide on a time or times of day when it suits you to attend to email, and decide how long you wish to spend on it, and work towards staying within that time, then even cutting it down further as you become more efficient.


If you have a backlog to get through, it’s a bit like looking at a pile of overdue bills.  Firstly you need to make sure you are dealing with at least as many each day as you receive, then you need to calculate how many on top of that you will need to handle each day in order to clear the backlog by a given time.  A bit like negotiating an installment plan for overdue bills.

Then of course you need to deal with the oldest top priority ones first, followed by all current top priority ones, followed by all new top priority emails, followed by next most important from oldest to newest.

Of course this is easier said than done if there is a lot of clutter in your inbox of things which just need filing or deleting, so I’m not opposed to spending the first 5 minutes of your email session clearing junk or emails which require no action.


Once you have decided on the priority order of your different types of emails, just choose ONE, and attend to that one fully.  Completing one small but necessary task, knowing that you have chosen wisely which one to do, can help break the inertia of procrastination and give you a lovely satisfied feeling, getting the ball rolling.

Labeling, categorizing, assigning folders…

…is necessary before you are able to prioritize.  You may be able to do most of this just by glancing at the subject lines.  If you have a play with your email settings, you may find you are able to have recurring emails automatically labeled as they come in.

Labels may apply to the sender of the email, whether a person or a company, or they may apply to a topic or subject.  Separating the different types of emails allows you to easily see which ones need attending to first.  Some may just be reading material, subscriptions such as this one, or entertainment, and some may be time sensitive requiring action.  Some may be an ongoing conversation with a friend.  A lot of it will be junk, but you may need to scan your junk mail folder before emptying it for the odd real email that lands there by mistake.


There are a number of possible actions to take when we view an email, and all of these are little decisions to be made, as often as we check our email.  The decisions are:

- ignore it or open it
- read it fully or glance/scan
- assign a label to it or move it to a folder
- delete it
- archive it or file it
- reply to it with an original reply
- reply to it with a standard reply
- look up information or complete a task in order to be able to reply to it
- forward it

Or, what we so often do – open it, glance at it, put it in the mental too hard basket, and do nothing, leaving the decision for later.

Keeping the possible actions in mind will help you decide on the priority of each.  I tend to have three priority levels:

1. Urgent and must attend to immediately, for example a customer needing help with their order, a request for information which is essential to continue with an important work project, your friend asking if you want tickets to a concert which are about to go on sale.  Some of these may even prompt a phone call to deal with them most efficiently.
2. Important and needs attending to but not super time sensitive, or things which are just entertainment or light reading.
3. Junk to be deleted, or subscriptions you are no longer interested in to be unsubscribed from.

It’s very tempting to do the easiest or most pleasant emails first, but better to stick with the priorities.  This way you will get more enjoyment from the easy and fun ones.  

Standard replies

It’s easy to build up a set of standard replies which you can copy and paste into your email, then customize as needed.  If you don’t have a standard reply to an email, but you know you will receive more like this, or need to send more like this, simply copy and save it somewhere you can find it easily.  If there are several parts of the email where customization is needed, blank those out with lines on your standard copy so that you don’t accidentally send wrong information when you use it, and can see where to fill in the blanks.  Don’t forget to review your standard letters from time to time as they may need updating.

Drafting a good reply

- Be concise.  Review your email before sending it and edit it down so that it is easy and clear to get the gist of it.
- Make good use of the subject line.  This allows the recipient to easily categorize and prioritize your email.
- Before replying to an email, consider doing a search on the sender’s email address to check for previous correspondence.  This will allow you to be more personal, accurate, and make more sense.


- Don’t SHOUT
- Remember the limitations of written communication and consider whether the reader might not understand your intention without the aid of tone of voice or body language.
- Do use your best spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on.  It’s not a text message.
- Don’t make it a novel
- Use the BCC (blind carbon copy) function or group send when sending something to a number of addresses.  If you send everyone’s email address to everyone else, especially if it’s a forwarded email, you’re inviting spam to all.

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Melbourne, Australia

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