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In Defense of Email

It's not very popular right now, but here's why it still works for me...

I know, I know, I know – people hate email. And honestly, so do I. There are moments when I get frustrated that my inbox keeps filling up no matter how hard I work to clear it out. It’s a never ending battle. There are thousands of posts and videos online teaching us how to wrestle email to the ground, because it can certainly can be a massive time suck.

But the truth is – particularly for someone who travels as much as I do (and for millions working from home) email is a still a fantastic way to communicate. It’s flexible, and people don’t expect immediate responses like they do with calls or texts. But the key is making it simple, easy to use, and most important, use it according to YOUR terms, not everyone else’s terms.

I’m by no means an email expert, but to help make your email life a little easier, here’s a few suggestions that I’ve learned over the years:

1) Take the time to pick the best email program that works for you. I have Apple Mail, Spark, Outlook, and Mimestream on my computer right now and I’ve tried plenty of others like Airmail. I’m constantly experimenting to see which app works the best for my processing style. Here’s a few thoughts about each:

Apple Mail – Although it doesn’t play well with Gmail, it’s my overall favorite. It’s simple, easy to use, and the keyboard shortcuts are easy and fast. But it’s incredibly slow with Gmail, and often drives me crazing waiting for email messages to arrive.

Spark – I love Spark because it has a messaging feature so you can text directly to someone you’re emailing, it has a clean look, and has a great feature for managing pre-written template responses. The only reason I haven’t switched is because the keyboard shortcuts are awkward – and keyboard shortcuts help me fly through email.

Outlook – That’s the 400 pound gorilla out there, and it’s nice to have so many features in a single app. But the truth is, I don’t need all those features. If you’re a power user, then God bless you, but I want simple, clean, and fast.

Mimestream – This was created by an ex-Apple engineer, so it’s the closest to how Apple Mail operates but it also works MUCH faster with Gmail.

2) Get your folder system down. In the past, it was common to have 20, 30, or more email folders as people tried to sort their emails by project, event, clients, personal, family, or other topics. However, as email search has gotten so much better, there’s really no reason to have that many folders. In fact, I would say that constantly searching through a long list of folders for a particular email takes more time than simply doing a search of your entire email archive.

The “Stack System” is the current folder system I’m using and I really like it. For me, I’ve cut back to a handful of folders like Current Projects, Travel, Speaking, Reference, and a few other temporary folders I use for immediate issues I’m working on right now. There’s a million possible folder combinations, but my only advice is to do your best to limit the number – otherwise, scrolling through a long list of folders defeats the purpose of finding emails quickly.

3) For email processing, there’s nothing like keyboard shortcuts. This is the most important reason I keep using Apple Mail. Aside from its shortcomings (like not working well with Gmail) by using keyboard shortcuts, I can process email far faster than with other apps.

4) Keep it short. Email isn’t for writing essays, blog posts, or full length articles. People are busy and don’t have time to read your long message, so keep it short and to the point. Probably a third of my email messages are all in the “Subject” line. Also, email templates are a lifesaver for those times when you get a number of similar requests. Just pre-write them and grab them when needed.

5) Finally – remember that how you respond to other people’s email, shapes their attitude about communicating with you. For instance, if you always respond immediately, people will assume you’ll always respond immediately. Email isn’t designed to be instant communication so don’t set up that expectation with your clients, customers, or co-workers or it will bite you later.

Email can be a frustrating pain, but when it comes to dealing with clients, my team, and others, it doesn’t interrupt me, allows me to respond when I want, and makes life a lot easier. So until something better comes up, I’m still a fan.

What are the most productive email techniques you’ve discovered?

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

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4 Comments

  1. Great points, Phil.

    Instead of folders, I use labels, but I used to do the same as well with the very detailed naming scheme, but changed in the past few years to just have general labels for at a glance searching and using the built-in search for more robust searching.

    Keyboard shortcuts are great. Gmail has the Ctrl+Enter to send and I customized that on Outlook. I only use the web version of Outlook, don’t need the extra stuff.

    One thing that I have recently done is for any communication with my team is to use instant messaging (In my case, I use https://element.io/). It just makes more sense now that I’m doing that if I need just a quick response. Can also share files, make audio/video calls…pretty robust communication system (not an employee, just a big fan!).

    1. Yes – the “Label” system on Gmail threw me for a loop at first, but I finally got it figured out. 🙂
      Also – is element.io an app like Slack?
      Thanks for the note. Great advice!

  2. Interesting how different people use email. Yes I don’t like it but generally use of for longer more complex Communication. If it’s short and simple use a text message of some sort (Signal being #1 and Whatsapp of I don’t care about the content being read). I get irritated by short emails. But not quite as much as by voice messages. They are the worst. I generally ignore voice messages now.

    My two email clients are Protonmail for work (it’s secure) and Gmail for home and open email.

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