Five Realistic Tips for Using Email More Efficiently.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Five tips for using email more efficiently.

Email. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. I’m trying to be smarter about how to use email so that it makes my life easier, not tougher.

I’ve read a lot of advice about email that, although it sounds helpful, just isn’t realistic. For example, I’ve read that you should deal with each email as it comes in. I just can’t do that.

I also commit the classic mistake of having a “miscellaneous” folder, which you should never do – though in my case, the miscellaneous folder happens to be labeled “Worth saving.” It’s full of emails that having nothing in common except that they are, well, worth saving.

But I do try to follow these strategies:

1. Keep it brief. On the Happiness Project Toolbox, I saw that one person resolved to “Write shorter emails.” This is a resolution we should all embrace! Easier for the writer, easier for the reader.

2. Stay focused. I used to write round-up emails, where I’d include several matters in a single email. I thought this was efficient, because I was sending fewer emails. From my own response to receiving those kinds of emails, however, I’ve changed my habits. Now I write multiple emails, each on a single subject, with an appropriate subject line. I realized that those round-up emails made it hard for me to keep track of different sub-issues, and I also tended to delete the email before everything was addressed. I’m sure I bug people when I send five emails in a row, each on a different subject, but I think it works better.

3. Keep a sense of proportion! Don’t flag an email as “urgent” unless it really is urgent! I know someone who has flagged every single email to me as urgent! Not acceptable!

4. Unsubscribe. As a newsletter writer, I’m always sorry to see someone unsubscribe from my monthly newsletter, but from a happiness-project perspective, it’s a smart thing to do if you’re not reading something. Sure, it may take only a second to delete it when it arrives, but seeing emails flooding into your in-box is so unpleasant; take a few extra seconds to stop those emails at the source. (On the other hand, if you’d like to get my excellent free monthly newsletter, sign up here! Or email me at

5. Manage your notifications. When you set up a Twitter account, a Facebook account, a Goodreads profile, a YouTube channel, and the like, pay very careful attention to the notifications. Do you really want to be notified when X, Y, or Z happens? Maybe not. And if you realize later you’re getting notifications you don’t want, take a minute to change your settings. As in #4, while it’s true that deleting takes less time than changing your settings, in the long run, it’s worth it to take steps to control this clutter.

What other strategies help you to use email more efficiently? I need more ideas!

* I came across a fun site, Fancy Buffalo — “a collection of life & style inspiration from the Great Plains.”

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 42,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Join the 2010 Happiness Challenge to make 2010 a happier year
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
— Watch the one-minute book video Or the 30-second TV commercial (yes, the book was actually advertised on TV!)
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • menopausalentrepreneur

    #1, keep it brief, is soooo right! I worked for several major corporations who had informal policies that emails could not be lengthy, simply because we received so many emails each day. I try to adhere to this courtesy in all that I send. Any long emails that I receive get deleted because I just don’t have the time or the focus to absorb it all.

  • anitamc

    Pick up the phone… many a lengthy and frustrating email chain could have been avoided with a 2 minute phone call!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! I got a hilarious phone call from someone the other day, for just this

  • jendee3

    Great tips for using email efficiently! I have found that sending emails once a day is a huge time saver. Many times I would respond to emails right away and get into a back and forth email conversation with the original sender. Now I either compose an email or respond to an email, save it as a draft, and then hit the send button at night, once I am finished for the day. Of course there are still some time sensitive matters that need immediate attention, but it really helps with the not so urgent stuff and I am sure not to miss responding to an email.

  • Another alternative to unsubscribing: setting up a filter(s) to send newsletters to a separate folder. That way they won’t clutter your inbox, but they’re still there if you want to read them when you’re caught up. I have a folder labeled ‘skim’ where I send nonessential newsletters and notifications. Easy to do in Gmail.

    • Dave

      Yeah, I even have filters set up to just mark emails from certain email lists as read as soon as they arrive. I want to be able to find stuff in them if I search, but otherwise ignore them. (Makes me sound a bit selfish, since I never contriute to these lists, but they are in areas where I have no expertise but I might need to help someone else find an answer.)

  • Jess

    I also use the filters in gmail- a huge help. Filters also help me notice that I’m not necessarily reading those emails if the folders don’t get cleaned out regularly.

    Another awesome gmail setting is canned responses. Many email queries I receive can all be answered with essentially the same response. Now each time I receive a particular kind of email, I can simply reply with my standard answer to that question, plus a quick bit of personalization.

    Finally, I try to check my email only once an hour or every two hours. Almost nothing is so urgent that it can’t wait that long, and I can work more efficiently when I can concentrate for a block of time without email interruptions.

  • One thing that has helped me with email is to not obsess over what I’ve written. I don’t have to say everything *just right* to get my point across. No one expects me to be a writing genius. So now I try to just say only what I need to say and then hit send.

  • For me Gmail has been helpful in being able to organize emails. It’s often helpful to create folders for emails that we get and if we know that were unable to read them right away, we can make folders for them and when they come in click and drag them to that folder and they disappear from the main inbox list and go into that folder.

    Therefore, at a later time you can come back and catch up on all the emails that you missed rather than leaving them in the main inbox to clutter it up.

    Great tips Gretchen as always! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Lesley

    I teach a module on emails that get ACTION. The first BIG lesson is on subject lines. If you’re able to include your entire message or question in the subject line, DO IT. Then the recipient doesn’t even have to open it before they reply, hopefully with the answer in the subject line. You can flag these messages by adding “NT” (no text) to the end of the subject line to signify there’s nothing more to see.

    Second, make your subject line as specific as possible and if you’re involved in a long email string and the content has changed, CHANGE the subject line. This makes it much easier to search for information later.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great ideas!!!

    • RachelGrey

      In my workplaces people use (end of message) at the end of such subject lines.

  • Kelly

    I’m with Lesley. Specific subject lines are crucial to effective emailing. I can’t tell you how often I’m frustrated by non-specific subjects. “New Job” or “Question” or even better, NO subject, are completely useless.

    Another thing that *I* prefer is that the email chain be continuous. I like having the entire discussion in one place instead of starting a new email (with a completely different subject line) for each communication. And along those lines… be consistent with subject lines. If it is regarding an ongoing project, PLEASE refer to it the same way each time. Job # in one email, client name in another, etc, means extra work when trying to gather job parts.

    Rant over.

    • Dave

      Similar pet peeve – people who ‘hijack’ old conversations. They reply to an old email (now complete, over, ended), start a completely unrelated topic, but leave the subject header the same. Actually, if you’re corresponding with a power email user, their email software will detect that this is a ‘reply’ to the old email *even if you change the subject* and will tack it on the end of the old conversation thread. This says pretty clearly ‘My time is worth more than yours.’ If, out of ignorance, you are one of these people, please show some courtesy and learn to use your contacts list.

  • Excellent advice. Thanks, Gretchen! 🙂

  • Email Confusion!

    Late last Sunday night I wrote a quick email to my 10 year old son’s baseball coach. I wanted to let him know how much I appreciate him. I thought it was a kind of cute and funny and lovey-dovey note. He sent back a note, right away, that said he wasn’t sure how to interpret the note. After reading it, again, I still thought it was kind of cute and funny and lovey-dovey. But the next morning, my husband, whom I had copied, said that my humor didn’t translate well in the email.


    Here I was trying to send a quick little note of appreciation and it totally backfired. I saw the coach last night and it was very awkward.

    I should have just written a very short and quick email that said, “Coach, thanks for everything you are doing for our team!”

    No misinterpretations on that one, right!?

    Even better, I could have done it face to face at the Tuesday night practice!

  • I have a pretty basic rule for email. Emails should either be sent when there is one person to ask about multiple topics, or multiple people to ask about one topic.

    If there are multiple people and multiple topics a 30-60 minute phone call is much more effective than the multiple email chains that can result from a poorly drafted email.

    I also try to make my subject lines meaningful.

  • Asha

    Here’s a tip I got two years ago and have been using ever since:

    1. Have three folders. Yes, three (3). Action, Hold, and Archive.

    2. Twice a day, go through your inbox. Respond to anything that takes less than a minute to respond to right then. Anything else that requires a response should go into your Action folder. This will become a To Do list of sorts for the day.

    3. Anything that does not require an action, but is waiting on a response from someone else, or you need for later (travel reservation, etc.) goes in Hold.

    4. Everything else: if you need it, Archive, if you don’t delete.

    5. At some point, set aside an hour to go through your Action folder and respond to everything. Maybe do this twice a day.

    6. Also schedule a time (probably once a day, or even once a week) to go through your Hold folder. Either make the email a task for follow-up on your calendar (like if you haven’t heard back on whatever you were waiting for) or to some event (like the travel reservation email can get attached to the trip on your calendar). If there’s no reason for it to ever be on your calendar either as a task, appointment, or event, then it doesn’t need to be in your life. Archive or delete.

    Voila! Empty inbox every day, an automatic to do list, and items scheduled for follow up on your calendar. And if you ever need to find an email, Outlook makes it really easy to search by keywords, subject, author, etc. Trust me, get rid of the million folders, they just make your life more complicated and miserable.

  • anonymous

    Just a note about the “urgent” flag. I think Outlook has a default setting which regenerates the flag each time a reply to the original flagged message goes out. At least in some cases, you have to manually unclick it. Once at work I replied to someone who had sent a flagged e-mail and later discovered that all my replies (which then CC’d others) had the urgent flag on them too. I felt like a jack*ss and was really annoyed with Outlook for sneaking it in like that, because I’m definitely not one to use that flag liberally, if ever…

  • Gretchen,

    Thanks, as always, for your very practical tips. I have a love/hate relationship with email. It does streamline communication and it is very easy, but the issue is that our Inboxes get flooded so quickly and it is so hard, if impossible, to stay on top of emails. Your suggestions, if heeded, are very helpful.

    I know this post isn’t a theoretical inquiry into the advent of email, but… I have been thinking about the fact that in this contemporary technological of ours, our lives are really and deeply affected by the tools we use. Like email. I go to bed each and every night with a feeling of incompleteness because I know there are many emails to which I didn’t respond and should have. I think this expectation of speed in response affects our attitude over the course of our days and adds to the exasperation, guilt, overwhelm, so many of us already feel.

    Anyway, could go on and on and on, but won’t. Thank you for your practical approach to this email issue, an issue that truly affects all of us.

    Insecurely yours,

  • I love this post and I really appreciate Asha’s comment. These are all great ideas and heaven knows I can use them! Whatever it takes to make my life more streamlined, less stressful, and…well…happier!

    In my job I have to save a lot of my emails because I have to retrieve them at later dates, but I always make sure to have specific folders for each “type” of email. That way when I have to retrieve them, I don’t have to search through a giant “misc.” folder – I can go to one folder and find them quickly.

    I love tip Wednesday!

  • May I suggest that more email accounts, with a proper strategy, mail actually be more “efficient”?

    All too often, I see folks with a single email account with everything jumbled together. No ability to segregate personal from business, financial from non, family from weirdo, (Oh wait some of my family are pretty weird!), … any way, you get the idea.

    I personally use lots of different accounts for different purposes. Reading down my inboxes in my mail client: Urgent Matters, Brokerage Account, Bank Account, Paytrust, Family, Friends, Work, Job Search Networking, College Alumni, My High School Class Specifically, High School Alumni, Networking, Technology Playing, Catch All, and Routine Subscriptions. And, few other oddballs ones.

    May sound like a mess, but:

    (1) Email time is IMMEDIATELY presented in priority order. (Most people just reply to email, so they get to know me by the address. I have my own domain so I am in complete control of the names, the archiving interval, and automatic handling.)

    (2) Messages purporting to be from my bank sent by a spammer stand out like a sore thumb when they come it on the “wrong” email account.

    (3) Message originating from me are distinctive in the account name so the recipient can quickly place my association with them. (e.g., HighSchoolNickname @ mydomainname dot com) Saves angst on all ends.

    (4) “Lost messages”, remembered or needed later, can be found by looking in the “dedicated email” box which is just a fraction of the overall mail volume.

    So in this case, more is actually less. More mailboxes; less wasted time.

  • I need to merge all my emails and take back my life! I spend too much time rambling and not enough time staying organized.

  • kristenayers

    I struggle with e-mail efficiency ALL the time! Thanks for this post and your helpful suggestions! Another idea that works for me is to create subfolders on the sidebar under your inbox. That way, if you have a project that is finished, you can stick e-mails in there that you need to keep, but want out of your immediate inbox. This helps me use my inbox for only the e-mails that need to be dealt with today or within the week.

  • I think people need to be aware of the various platforms of communication available. Consider other options. You can call or text if something is urgent. I tend to leave social messaging to facebook. If you want to reconnect with an old friend, write a letter. Don’t letter email be your only source of communication.

  • You had me at Keep it brief. Anyway, you’re absolutely right. Keep It Short and Sweet (KISS). Use bullet points if possible. I actually use email for business and FB and text to keep in touch with friends.

  • I use emails a lot! I love writing, and I don’t like making phone calls, so emails are a wonderful way to communicate for me.

    I try to avoid the “only emails” habit, though, because sometimes a good call is better.
    I also have some friends who don’t use emails so much, and I’m at risk of losing contact with them.

    I learned the “Stay focused” rule with my sister, who is literally unable to answer to more than one question in a message!
    I used to send her texts with more than one subject in them, and she always answered to just one! (Usually, the first one).
    So I started sending one text for every question.
    Even if it is less cheap, it is more effective!

    I use multiple folders to keep my mail in place, but I also got a lot of mail I like to receive, but I’m not able to manage efficiently.

    I will definitely pick some of the useful suggestions posted here!

    One of my personal commandments is “Switch off technology”, so I guess this subject fails in the category “Use technology in a wise way”…

  • Boukje

    Dealing with each email as it comes in is probably the worst advice ever.

    I’d be interrupted and distracted from my work so often that I wouldn’t get anything done.

    It’s much more efficient to dedicate a set time to deal with email, for example the first and last hour of your workday.

  • I STRONLY recommend the tip #1 – keeping it brief. I work in customer service for a well known manufacturing company and I dread reading those consumer emails that are multiple paragraphs long…we don’t need to know the whole history of how/when/why you purchased this tool. Please just ask your question 🙂 You will get a response much faster!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! Sometimes it’s easy to think that others will understand our problem or
      question better if they have a lot of background, but in fact, that extra
      information is just confusing — and makes the recipient not want to read
      the email at all.

    • Dave

      my sig:

      Q: Why should this email be 5 sentences or less?

      p.s. I tried to comment from my ipad, your ‘post as guest’ button did not work on that browser.

  • andreaballard

    Lead with your question. Instead of writing two paragraphs explaining a situation, start with your recommendation/request/item needed. Then follow with the justification. If the answer is Yes, people don’t have to waste time getting to the question.

    Great tips!

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great one.

  • KateCrussie

    I so agree about the positive impact reducing the time we spend on email can make on our lives. I have taken steps to curtail its prevalence in my life and when I stick to my plan, I’m always happier. The most effective step I took was to set up my email so that I have to click “Send/Receive” in order for new emails to come into my Inbox. That way I am no longer distracted and interrupted by that “ping” sound new email makes when it arrives. Next, I decided that I would only check email 3 times a day and I identified what times of day that would be. Keeping to this has been a challenge but oh how much time I save when I do.

    I’m in the middle of reading The Happiness Project and I’m finding myself so inspired by it. Thank you, Gretchen!

  • Hi,

    I actually have to disagree with number 1. Email is already impersonal enough, but just recently someone thanked me for writing a header and signing my name in each email. I started paying attention, and he is rigt – no one else does this. I find that it makes me feel as though I do not matter to that person. Just a few extra seconds to write an email with some thought is worth the connection to other people. I agree that it is less efficient, but should efficiency really be the cost of connection, especially when we are talking about happiness? Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  • happyuws

    my resolution: after reading a message, remember that i’m different because i read it. no need to keep it in my inbox.

    i used to read a brilliant, inspirational, moving message from the happiness project (or zen habits or flylady) think “wow! what a great idea….i’ll keep it right here in my inbox to remind me of it.” maybe i later looked at that message once or twice — but the main thing it reminded me of was how annoying it was to have so many messages in my inbox. i rarely went to the trouble of actually opening and re-reading the messages.

    i’ve come to realize, and accept, that when i read something like that i *am* changed – just by reading it once. no need to go over and over it. in fact, going over and over it is sometimes *counter* productive. today, i read things carefully, make sure i really absorb them – maybe that means re-reading a message while it’s still open. but then – delete. or, for the very best, a folder named “inspiration”.

    it’s like therapy – i used to have a brilliant insight, then scramble for a pen and paper, or try to memorize it – thereby missing the rest of the session and possibly the rest of my day. now i remember that i have been changed by the passage of that thought or insight through my mind. i can then relax and let it do its work.

    the parts of my brain that need this kind of change are not the “inbox” or “notepad” parts anyway….they are elsewhere, and are affected by everything that touches them.

  • I love email, but I have a complex relationship with it because in my job I’m expected to respond quickly. But I also write and sometimes when I’m in the middle of a story and I need to get it done I can’t be distracted.
    I turn on my out of office when I’m writing. I change the message but it basically says I’m on a deadline and not reading e-mail from 2-4 pm(or whatever), but I am in the office and to call if it’s urgent.
    For me it’s effective.
    And, honestly one time my friend saw that and went out and bought me a coffee, dropped it on my desk without saying a word with a simple note attached “write write write.”

  • Sai

    EMail filters.. Best is GMail..

  • Excellent advice. I wish more people followed it. Thank you.

    I prefer to send a series of short emails each with one point than one long one with 5 points. It is more email, but easier to follow. And yes, I prefer to receive email that way too.

    I coach people in public speaking – the same basic principles apply – keep it short, keep it focused.

  • Eugene

    On point 5, you can try group together all your social media notifications with NutshellMail:

  • Bob

    The single best thing you can do to help people with email (IMHO) is to use a well thought out, descriptive subject line WITH timing included. This helps people triage their inbox without necessarily having to open and read every email.

    Example of Bad Subject:

    Subject: Meeting

    Alternative Good Subject:

    Subject: [ACTION REQUIRED BY COB 5/24]: Review Agenda for 6/10 VP Review and Return Comments

    Example of Bad Subject:

    Subject: Web Site

    Alternative Good Subject:

    Subject: [INFORMATION ONLY]: Interesting Web Site Devoted to Detecting Counterfeit Drugs – Relevant to Your Project

    You get the idea, now DO IT universally and tell your friends to get in the habit!

  • Phyllis Guess

    I received my bookplate from you today…it made me smile. Thanks! Phyllis

  • I just subscribed to your newsletter! Great post! I look forward to reading more.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great! I hope you find the newsletter useful.

  • m65

    I so agree about the positive impact reducing the time we spend on email can make on our lives. I have taken steps to curtail its prevalence in my life and when I stick to my plan, I’m always happier. The most effective step I took was to set up my email so that I have to click “Send/Receive” in order for new emails to come into my Inbox. That way I am no longer distracted and interrupted by that “ping” sound new email makes when it arrives. Next, I decided that I would only check email 3 times a day and I identified what times of day that would be. Keeping to this has been a challenge but oh how much time I save when I do.

    I’m in the middle of reading The Happiness Project and I’m finding myself so inspired by it. Thank you, Gretchen!


  • Spring Asher

    G, FYI: Oscar Hammerstein (South Pacific etc) was quoted on NPR last saturday
    in a this I Believe segment with an essay : I am Happy…a bit long but
    relevant Happiness project content….and you seem to like expert testimony.
    Have enjoyed the Book.

  • Spring Asher

    NPR essay by Oscar Hammerstein (South pacific etc) I am Happy.

    Relevant to your work

  • The single best thing you can do to help people with email (IMHO) is to use a well thought out, descriptive subject line WITH timing included. This helps people triage their inbox without necessarily having to open and read every email.

  • Some people have already suggested using better subject lines (key!). Here are some additional tips.

    1. Use bullet points. they are much easier to read than full paragraphs and make you really distill down what the message is.

    2. don’t use more than 3 bullet points. People have ADD and will not read beyond that.

    3. At work, get people used to the term End of Message (EOM) so you don’t get 26 replies of “thanks” when you say the 3:30 weekly meeting has been canceled.
    Use EOM in the subject line if possible.

    4. remember– the better your subject line, the more likely someone is to read it.

    5. don’t just keep replying to the same email with the same subject line because you’re lazy. change the subject line. The old subject line may have NOTHING to do with what you are emailing about.

  • The comments on this page are great!

  • aje

    When I fill out personal informtion for anything, be it a rewards card, membership, etc. I stop when I come to the line requesting my e-mail address. I ask myself, “Do I want to get e-mails from this source, do I want to hear about every activity this group has, do I want to deal with an e-mail for every sale this retailer concocts?” Usually, the answer is no, and I leave it blank. As a result, my e-mail is a delight to open and a helpful tool to use.

    Just because I have an e-mail address does not mean that I must share it with every company who asks for it.

  • Guest

    You should check out SquadMail which works like “Dropbox for email” and lets you share synchronized gmail labels (or email folders) with others.

    Instead of forwarding emails or CCing your entire team on each email, simply apply a shared label to as many emails as you’d like and they’ll show up in just the right place in your collaborators’ inbox.

    Additionally, each label gets its own email address that you can for example use to message groups of people or to receive automated emails such as newsletters or social network notifications.

    Last but not least, SquadMail lets you synchronize your labels with Dropbox and automatically extracts attachments and uploads them to the cloud storage.