5 abuses of email that will destroy your productivity

I adore email. I can barely remember life before it. It lets me manage information more efficiently, field requests at the times most convenient for me, and store records of important details and decisions. But email is also ripe for the kind of abuses that can harm your productivity instead of helping it.

Here are five big ways email can slow you down and make you less productive.

1. Reading every news article someone sends you. Just because a news article shows up in your in-box, it doesn’t have a higher claim on your time than your other priorities. Too often, people spend time reading everything friends and colleagues suggest for them, without considering whether it’s the best use of their time, relative to everything else on their plates.

2. Not deleting anything. Does your in-box contain thousands of messages, including junk email, invitations to meetings from three months ago, funny memes your sister forwarded you, and your manager’s out-of-office reply from her vacation last summer? If so, you’re highly likely to lose track of emails you need to act on. Start deleting, or at least taking advantage of the fact that email offers you folders to organize messages in. And speaking of folders….

3. Not organizing things by folders. If your in-box is just one vast bucket, with no sub-folders to organize your messages, chances are good that you’re losing track of important messages and struggling to find older emails when you need to reference them later. Folders organized by topic or by the needed action (like “to read,” “to act on,” “to follow up on,” and “as time allows” can bring order to a chaotic in-box.

4. Checking email every time you have a new message. The new message indicator can set off a Pavlovian response, where you automatically stop what you’re doing and check to see what new email has arrived. Rather than being a slave to these interruptions, consider turning off the message indicator, so that you’re checking email only at set intervals, and not every time a message arrives.

5. Emailing and then calling or coming by in person to make sure your message was received. Part of the point of sending email is that allows the other person to respond when it’s convenient for them – and/or to read over your messages and think about it before responding. If you follow up email with an in-person visit, you’re negating that benefit and spending your time delivering a message twice (as well as probably annoying your coworkers). If it’s essential that your message be received immediately, then email isn’t the right medium to use; you should call or talk in person.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 160 comments… read them below }

  1. Anoners*

    Setting up RSS feeds through your outlook is a total time suck. I can’t count the amount of times a day I skim through mine. I guess if they’re work related it wouldn’t be such a dig deal.

  2. Kevin*

    I was reading an article about the productivity of having a second computer monitor and apparently many just leave their email open in the second monitor which decreases productivity (which I don’t doubt). I don’t know how common second monitors are, but I think it’s really not needed when you use it mostly for email.

    1. The IT Manager*

      I love my double monitor – I wish for a third sometimes – but I do not use it just to leave mail open and up on another screen. That just seems begging for distraction.

      It is handy most handy for working on files (excel spreadsheets, schedules, documents, emails) and leaving it up while referencing the data you need to update the file or double check it on the second screen. I do that a lot.

      1. Kevin*

        I love mine too. I do a lot of copying from internet sources to word or excel so the second monitor is absolutely amazing. I also wish for a third sometimes but IT has already told me don’t hold my breath (in more polite terms).

      2. Neeta*

        I also have two monitors at work, and definitely don’t use one just for e-mail.

        At the very least, I have the code editor open in one window and the browser in another, to avoid constantly alt-tab-ing. Other than that, I tend to have a text editor open for various notes, an SQL editor, terminal etc etc.
        Outlook tends to be buried deep under 5 other windows. I leave it open because it sends me meeting notification, which I’d probably forget about, otherwise.

        Whenever I’m working from home, I feel like I’m moving so slowly, even though my monitor is huge (27”).

        In conclusion, there are definitely jobs where a second monitor comes in VERY handy.

        1. Bea W*

          you can have Outlook open but minimized to the notification tray so that’s one less open window buried under things and on your task bar. Meeting reminders will still pop-up right on top of all your other stuff.

      3. Elysian*

        I would love a second monitor, but as it stands I had to fight hard for a widescreen monitor (dual document viewing! come on!).

        I went from two widescreen monitors to one small square monitor, and it was such a hard adjustment to make. I’m living with one widescreen right now, but oh, to go back to two…

        1. Bea W*

          I think if I had to go back to working on one small square monitor I’d spend much of my day crying into my keyboard out of frustration.

        2. Jamie*

          This is making me sad.

          On my to do list is giving a second monitor to a user. I planned on doing it tomorrow, but in your honor I’ll do it before I leave.

          (As I sit here reading AAM while setting up a new machine and watching progress bars. If I didn’t have to keep doing the important job of clicking OK to eulas I could be multitasking.)

        3. Nutcase*

          I had a tiny square monitor for the first year of my job despite several requests being sent out to IT for another one as many other people had large and/or multiple monitors and it would have greatly improved my productivity. Doing graphical programming with lots of windows on one tiny screen is horrible so I had to take matters into my own hands in the end. When someone down the corridor from me resigned I commandeered his widescreen monitor and my life improved dramatically! I also made a deal with my mentor when he left so that I got my tiny desk swapped with his big desk in exchange for cupcakes. I have come to realise that it does not matter how many IT or admin requests I put in at my company, as essential equipment is exclusively assigned with bagsies and dibs.

          1. Neeta*

            In a way it’s good that you’re allowed to do “commandeering”.

            When I left my last job, a colleague asked me for my widescreen monitor, so that he could have two of the same type. Of course I agreed, but it wasn’t just that easy. IT had to be notified and they had to be the ones doing the installing. There was no way people could just decide to take over a company resource just like that.

            Then again, this was a 800+ employee company, so maybe in smaller ones it’s different.

            1. Bea W*

              My experience is in smaller places it’s much easier. There is no way you could do this where I work now without getting IT involved at some point. With thousands of people they have a sophisticated database tracking all of that equipment, and they kind of dislike having it liberated from one place and moved to another, and even worse if a non-IT person installs it. (fair enough. a lot of people screw it up). We did do this all the time at the last 2 places I worked, which were about 150-200 employees and 2 IT people serving who sat down the hall. One place all equipment was owned at the project level so you could swap out an entire computer if you wanted just as long as it belonged to your project. My current job all computers are user specific and not even the IT people can get past the initial login. If they are working on something and have to reboot you either need to be there or give them you user name and pw. So we can’t even temp swap off computers to help out a co-worker.

              1. tickledpink*

                That’s the beauty of our system that lets you log in to your account from any computer. It does have blips, but its a jolly useful system to have. Called Citrix Receiver.

            2. Nutcase*

              Our IT department puts labels on equipment and supposedly keeps track of it all. (I say supposedly because they’re always on the prowl looking for abandoned or lost bits of equipment and they never do seem sure where anything is). I just informed them that I had the monitor and told them the label number and hoped and prayed that they wouldn’t come and take it away from me.

              I think you’re right though about the size of the company. Mine’s only small and its a secure site so its NBD if everything’s a bit scatty.

      4. Emily K*

        Yep. I use mine when copying from a webpage to an Excel spreadsheet or something similar, and otherwise it’s where my interoffice chat buddy list, open chat windows, and my to-do list stay. (It’s a huger time-saver than you might expect to be able to glance over at the second monitor when my IM chime goes off to see who is messaging me and whether they’re asking a time-sensitive question that I should pause to deal with or just discussing plans for happy hour after work and I can wait 5 minutes to get back to them.)

        1. Bea W*

          I had to go stealth on Lync to get anything done. I think everyone in my department has. Apparently not everyone has as much work to do!

      5. Vicki*

        I can guarantee you that if you ever get a third, you’ll never give it up. I was fine with two … then I needed a third because I was doing copy editing on a book and wanted a monitor set with a Very Large Font. I thought “only until the book is released.”


        (My spouse has 4 monitors. One is supposedly for virtual PC but I don’t think it’s ever going away).

    2. scmill*

      I love my second monitor! So handy to have reference material, Sharepoints, internal applications, email, etc open on one screen while I’m working in Excel, Word, applications, etc on the other. Having two screens will spoil you for any other setup (unless that setup includes three screens!) particularly if you’re a developer.

      1. Bryan*

        ^ This. I got a new job and went from two monitors to one. I didn’t want to ask for one after just starting so I sucked it up. Luckily soon after I attended a conference where a present talked about a second monitor and I used that as getting one.

      2. Chinook*

        I too love my second monitor as I often have to copy information from one program to another (or compare spreadsheets). I went a year with one monitor but, when I knew there was going to be an increase in my workload, I asked for a second one and it made all the difference. My one monitor experience, though, taught me the art of of how to best fill a screen with various windows.

        As for email as a time suck, the best tip I ever heard was to minimize your Outlook AND turn of the pop up notifications. That little bit of flash in the corner will distract the most focused person because we are instinctvely drawn to any change in our line of sight.

      3. Vicki*

        At one previous job, I added my usual second monitor. My manager decided to try it. Hah! He was hooked in less than a day!

    3. Bea W*

      I have two monitors, but I sure do not use the second one for email, because I’d never get anything done. Email is always closed unless I am reading a message. I don’t want to see it, and the first thing I do setting up a fresh Outlook profile for myself is turn off the damn pop-up notifications.

      1. Vicki*

        You could use one of those multiple desktop apps that puts the other desktops “behind” the current one. I’ve done that. If you have to “switch” it’s not such a temptation, but you can get to the email quickly if necessary (like when the co-worker stops by to say “Have you read my email yet? Why have yo not responded??)

        1. Bea W*

          By closed I really meant the window isn’t open, just the icon in the notification tray so it’s there if I see the new message icon want to switch over.

    4. Jamie*

      Per Bill Gates 3 monitors gives you the maximum productivity – any more and it starts to dip due to field of vision and movement issues.

      I have three and would never go back. When I work at home I’m always too lazy to hook the monitor to my laptop, until 5 minutes in when I can’t stand it and cussing away I pull it out. In that case I don’t have email up, I’ll have it on my iPad.

      Huge fan of multiple monitors. When I first started IT it was a luxury – only higher level engineers and IT warranted multiple monitors…but now it’s so much more common place and it really does make a huge difference.

      1. Bea W*

        My home monitor has 2 inputs. one is hooked up to my personal computer and the other is hooked up to my work laptop docking station. So all I have to do is press a button to switch to the input source I want.

          1. Jamie*

            Do you like the 27″? I can’t get used to it. I have 3 24″ and it’s my favorite set up I’ve tried.

            When I’ve used a 27″ it just makes me sad I’m not watching TV.

            Although when I used my big screen as a monitor once, just to test something…you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a 65″ spreadsheet! It’s Excel you can live in.

            (And just some advice to the consumers out there – 65″ is way too big for a TV – don’t know what we were thinking but big mistake.)

            1. Mimmy*

              Ooooh my husband could probably use one of those 65″ screens for the Excel sheets he sometimes has to work with!!

            2. Bea W*

              I’ve had it a few years now and love it. A friend of mine has 2 24″ and I just can’t sit comfortably with that configuration with my neck issues since I have to slightly turn one way or the other. That could just be her set up. I love the one big monitor because I end up twisting less.

              My work has been putting giant TV screens in many of the conference rooms. I’d love to set up in one of those and work.

            3. Neeta*

              I also have a 27” monitor at home, and initially it took me some getting used to. Kept feeling I was at a tennis match every time I was looking from one end to the other.

              Then I realized I didn’t have to maximize every window on it, so I learned to use it more efficiently.

        1. Jamie*

          See you work at home like a grown up, I’m assuming sitting at a desk or table with a docking station and monitor ready to go.

          I work like a petulant 12 year old child – laying on my bed with my monitor precariously perched on my nightstand, iPad on a pillow so it keeps falling down, and laptop on my lap so I have to swivel my head to use the other monitor.

          I think this is why I prefer to go into work to do anything more than troubleshooting – I’m forced to sit up like a civilized person – and the gear is stationary.

          1. Bea W*

            I’ve been known to move to the couch to work while half watching bad daytime TV, but it’s hard on the back. Pain and discomfort are great motivators. I refuse to take work to bed or even in my bedroom. That is my sanctuary of relaxation. No work allowed. I really prefer to be in the office just to get out of the house and I like my co-workers. I live alone, so working from home too much begins to feel isolating. Plus I work in an awesome building.

            I knew a guy whose idea of working from home was rolling over to sign in and turning the volume up all they way so he could hear if anyone tried to contact him, and then he’d roll over and go back to sleep.

      2. De (Germany)*

        I wish I had three… As a software developer, that would be so helpful. I don’t know how people work with only one :-)

      3. Vicki*

        At LastJob, we all started out with a 22″ monitor. Then they brought around 27″ monitors, and Took The 22 Away! They even sent out email to say “you don;t get to keep it.”

        I asked a friend who worked in IT. He said they had two rooms full of 22-inch monitors.

        When we moved cubicles shortly thereafter, and the cube I was assigned had a 22″ monitor in it, left by the previous tenant, my friend and I made an agreement. If I declined to tell him officially that I had it, he wouldn’t have to ad it to the pile in those rooms.

        What were they THINKing???

  3. Chocolate Teapot*

    I had double monitors at an old job, and it mainly got used when I was cutting/copying and pasting. I would get a little pop-up when a new email arrived, and could then choose how to react.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      That’s basically what I do. My laptop goes on the dock and I use the big monitor as my main one. I do check the popups when they happen, though, in case it’s something urgent. But I can read part of them so I don’t always have to click over to Outlook.

  4. The Other Dawn*

    5. Emailing and then calling or coming by in person to make sure your message was received.

    I had a former manager that did this all.the.time. So annoying. He would also print out an email I sent to him. He’d bring it to me and tell me, “I got your email and here’s the answer…” No, email your answer. I want it in writing so i can have it for my records. That’s why I emailed you in the first place. And to save time.

    1. Rebecca*

      My manager does this. She emails something, then walks into my office and stands silently behind my chair. Then she sighs or makes some sort of noise, and says “I just sent you an email”. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, she wants me to drop everything and focus on her issue. Usually, she wants me to confirm I did something 2 months ago that she was copied on. I’m pretty sure her version of Microsoft Office doesn’t include the option to right click and use the menu to find related messages.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I love when the current boss comes over 5 minutes after she sent an email and wants to know if I read it yet. Uh, no. I was working on 5 other things you wanted “yesterday” and didn’t have time to read the three page article you sent 5 minutes ago.

      2. Sadsack*

        Wow – I was totally unaware of the related messages thing – thank you! I have used the search field in the past to find related messages, not realizing there was an easier way.

    2. Sparrow*

      Luckily, my boss does not do this, but a couple of co-workers do. I’ve gotten used to it over the years, so I know that once I see an email from them I “brace for the hit” for when they stop by to summarize what they just sent via email.

    3. Chinook*

      I never understood following up an email in person. In my mind, I give the person I send an email to 24 hours to reply (because some people only check emails periodically).

      Now, if I have an urgent, complicated matter, I have been known to email details, screen shots and links to someone and then call them to talk about it, but tha tis more a case of sending them the information they need to answer my question vs. bugging them for a response.

  5. Kai*

    Yeah, I really need to get in the habit of deleting/filing emails. I have a ton of folders set up but don’t actually put things in them on a regular basis. For shame!

    1. Ivy*

      I kind of disagree on this – it depends on how your memory works. I remember who sent something to me, or to whom I sent something and if needed I can search back by name and find it. I rarely delete emails and my archives go back 8+ years (IT hates me) at the rate of !150 emails a day. Putting things in folders only interferes with that kind of searching, so I only open them for particular big projects.
      Just saying there could be a different approach, as long as it works.

      1. AB*

        This is me exactly! I put things in folders and then I never find them again. I have folders only for certain projects where I know I probably won’t need that e-mail again.

        I get a lot of e-mail a day, and it seems like a massive time sink to have to categorize every email. Also, I hate deleting old e-mails. I can’t tell you how often I’ve saved my butt because I was able to access old e-mails that seemed unimportant (and I probably would have otherwise deleted). Sometimes it pays to be an e-mail hoarder, esp when you’ve worked with people who are forgetful or have a tendency to throw you under the bus.

        1. Mimmy*

          This is where “rules” really work, at least with Outlook. This way, emails with certain criteria (e.g. from a specific person or with a specific word or phrase in the subject line) automatically get put into folders. Saves so much time.

      2. Jamie*

        I’m sure your IT doesn’t hate you – I wouldn’t. You would not believe the size of my archive file.

        As long as people archive to keep the active mailbox under 5K items I don’t care, because then it doesn’t interfere with nightly Exchange backups and archives on the server are backed up separately.

        As long as you know how to search by yourself without calling IT, I can’t see you being a problem users.

        Problem users get annoyed when they ask me if I can get an email back that they deleted 2 years ago. Because of course I have the space to store all deleted files forever.

        Problem users stop acknowledging your good morning greeting because you upgraded them to Outlook 2013 and they refuse to believe it was due to compatibility with the new Exchange server and prefer their delusion that you hate them and this is your clever revenge.

        As if my revenge would be so weak. I’m not a vengeful person, but if I were…I think I’m capable of something a little more interesting.

      3. Agile Phalanges*

        Actually, just in case you (or anyone reading this) thinks it would be helpful to have sub-folders, but hates having to search each folder separately, you can search in the “Cabinet,” it’ll tell you there were no matches found (because you probably don’t actually have any messages in the Cabinet), but then you can “Try searching again in All Mail Items” and it will search through all the folders for the search term. I love sub-folders, and therefore I love this feature to be able to search all of them (because often, a given e-mail could just as easily fit into a couple different folders and I have to pick just one).

        I also have three priority folders for to-dos: Today, Soon, and Eventually. I like to keep a clean inbox, and these three folders keep me on task–I make sure to get through the Today folder each day, the Soon folder at least a couple times a week, and the Eventually folder holds newsletters and SmartBriefs and articles I can just read when I have time.

    2. lachevious*

      The problem I’ve seen with using folders in Outlook is that when my company decides to delete emails over two-years old (due to their record retention policy) the emails all get sucked out of the folders and placed in a temporary folder.

      Then, if you want to save anything – you have to go through all the emails again and put them back into the folders again. Ugh. I just keep everything in my inbox and sent folder – up to 5,000+ and still easy enough to find stuff.

    3. Chinook*

      Please file/clean up your inbox. I once temped for a woman who was literally hit by a taxi on the way home after work one day. When I went in and logged in to see what needed to be done, there were 1,000 emails (80% jokes, personal letters and junk mail). It took me 3 days of sorting through and filing it to find out what needed to be done (which was necessary because she had a new boss and, it turns out, no one knew what this woman actually did with her day).

      That doesn’t mean your inbox should be empty, but atleast only have items that you are currently working on.

      Cleaning up can be easy too if you create a few rules to autofile items froma particular person or with key words in the subject line.

      1. Elysian*

        I’m sorry about your coworker.

        It could have gone the other way, though – productivity junkies suggest not using your inbox as your to-do list, so if she was an inbox-zero follower there might have just been nothing there, and it might have taken just as long.

        1. Jennifer 3*

          This has happened to me before.a few years ago I started deleting all my rules in December and starting over. I also then unsubscribe to the stuff I am not reading.

      2. Callie*

        I had to fill in temporarily for someone who was responsible for advising for all the undergrads in our department. She had a major health emergency and we had no idea when she would be back (it ended up being months). Her email system was the most beautiful and helpful thing–everything was labeled, sorted, and organized and she had handled nearly all issues or problems via email or sent emails to the relevant people after in-person or phone conversations. If I didn’t know how to do something for a student, all I had to do was click the relevant folder and I could read how she’d dealt with it in the past. It made filling in for her so much easier, and I stuck to her system, so when she got back it was easier for her to reference what I had done while she was away.

  6. Lanya*

    #4 – Turning off the constant pop-up reminders in Outlook was the best thing I ever did for my productivity. I check email first thing in the morning, right after lunch, and about an hour before I leave for the day. I get a lot more work done when I’m not constantly interrupting myself every 5 minutes.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Totally agree. This was a game changer for me. I set up a rule so that urgent emails still pop up, so I don’t worry about missing something super crucial, but then I’m free to focus on my email in chunks rather than avoiding work by scrolling through my inbox :)

      1. Elysian*

        I didn’t know you could set a rule for that! Neat! If your office uses urgent markers properly, that’s a really useful tool.

        1. Elysian*

          OHH If you can do this, can you also set it to show alerts from that admin that sends out the “first come first served” baseball ticket emails?! I bet you can…. cause that’s the only reason I keep my alerts on is so I don’t miss that kind of stuff…

    2. C average*

      Ditto. I check way more often than you, but turning off the reminders really changed my workflow and productivity. I’m a total email junkie and was reluctant to make this change, but I’m glad I did.

      1. ec*

        Me too! I still check very often, usually when my icon changes, but even that is so much less intrusive and distracting than the actual pop-up. I hate that thing.

    3. hayling*

      Depends a lot on the type of company you work for. Where I work if you go more than an hour or so without checking your email during the workday it’d be considered slow/weird.

      1. Lanya*

        Yep – and then you would start to get the people from #5 who start stopping by your desk all the time to ask if you got their email! LOL. My office workflow is slow enough that I can afford to check only 3 or 4 times a day. Other offices, not so much.

      2. Tasha*

        My research group is the same way. It’s pretty normal to see a reply within 5 minutes, and people tend to apologize if it takes more than an hour. For longer tasks, I often reply with a short message saying when I expect to finish, then add the deadline to my calendar, because I’d never get anything done otherwise :)

  7. Ellie H.*

    I use folders somewhat but not extensively, but sometimes run into more problems that way when I forget where something is and can’t find it quickly by searching, or when I misfile or file inconsistently. Obviously you can search in all mail items, but that is more time-consuming and often I want to look at just messages I received not sent. Etc. Ultimately though, I think it’s probably that I don’t use them aggressively/consistently enough. Also, the point about not jumping to read every time a new email comes in is definitely one I’ll take to heart!

    1. Sunflower*

      Yea I am always up in the air between folders and no folders. When I started, I used folders. And then a couple months later when I went back to find stuff, I couldn’t and it was annoying.

      My job is basically emailing back and forth with people so I’m searching through stuff a lot. My problem is there are a ton of different ways I could categorize the folders and I feel like it would be great sometimes and cause a lot of headaches others.

      1. Sharon*

        Maybe my work is much simpler but I don’t quite understand how you couldn’t set up a system that made sense to you so you know where to find things. I guess it’s like this email could logically go into folder A or folder B or folder C, so you shove it into one of them and then later can’t find it? I set up my folders by product that I support so I never have trouble finding stuff.

        It reminds me of a friend who I recently did an international trip with. I knew she was generally disorganized to begin with but on the trip she really surprised me. She showed up wearing layers: a tshirt, sweatshirt, zip-up sweatshirt with pockets, a light jacket with pockets, a passport holder around her neck, her purse, her wheelie carry on. Throughout our journey she kept losing things and getting frustrated because whatever she needed was in any one of the eighteen pockets or her purse or her carry on. I wanted to introduce her to the concept of KISS and the necessary organizational skill of always putting things back where they belong so you know where they are next time you need them.

        1. Monodon monoceros*

          My biggest problem with folders is when an email is regarding 2+ topics. Especially the ones that are responding to topic A, but then we start a discussion on topic B and C, with still some information on topic A.

          1. Windchime*

            Exactly. This is why I have an inbox with 6000 emails and piles of papers on my desk. Because I have to know where to file them before I can do it!

            I have a lot of auto-notifications (Job A has failed on Server B, or Job B has completed successfully) and these have rules and folders. But for the other stuff….not so much.

            1. Stephanie*

              I used to hate email folders. It took too much time to sort each email to it’s proper folder. And if one email covered two topics, forget it.

              Then I started creating folders by date. Each month gets it’s own folder. The current month is in the “favorite” section. When I’m done with the email, it takes only seconds to move it. If I need it later, I can usually narrow down the time to a 1-2 month time frame and use Outlook’s search feature within those months.

              Now my inbox is manageable, but I don’t have to spend forever filing email each day.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      I’m also on the fence about folders. At my old job I didn’t really use them much, but at the new job it seems like I need to because there are so many emails coming at me about all different things. Plus the boss is mega organized and feel like a bumbling slacker if I don’t.

    3. Chinook*

      there is a neat trick in Outlook if you are looking for a message and you know who it was sent from. If you go to their contact card (or create one for this purpose) and select “Activities” in the “show” portion of the “Contact” tab, it will list everything that is connected to their email address (including apopintments as well).

  8. Pip*

    #5! There were a couple of project managers at my old job who would send an e-mail and not two minutes later they would send an IM: “Did you get my e-mail? Please answer it!” Every time. Yeah, it’s not like I have any other tasks to do, tasks that require staying focused. We’d get about a hundred e-mails a day, so if you dived for the inbox every time an e-mail came nothing would get done.

    And then there was this other PM who would send an IM to confirm safe delivery of job files. The usual procedure was to do that by e-mail, and IM was for when something was wrong with the files and a deadline was looming. So obviously, when you saw an IM from a PM to whom you just had delivered something, you’d start panicking. I finally had enough and told her nicely how disturbing it was with the non-urgent IMs, and she said she just did not want to clutter my inbox… At least she stopped IMing me like that.

  9. HM in Atlanta*

    I use my inbox like it’s the top of my desk. I dump everything else into another folder, and tag it using the Categories feature. It’s much easier to search, and I don’t have to remember my folder system for long periods of time.

    I do use a limited # of folders – things I’m waiting for/need to follow up on.

    1. Cath in Canada*

      I just started using the categories system for my active inbox (I’ve been a huge fan of folders for years, but I only move messages into folders once the issue’s dealt with). It is SO AWESOME! I showed my manager how I’ve been using it to keep my various projects separate, and now he’s using it too. I use the same category colours as I do on my calendar, and I have cardboard folders of roughly the same colours for my physical inbox too.

  10. Annie O*

    My inbox is at zero. Literally. It’s a beautiful thing.

    Another thing that helps me is to check email only a few times a day, and always at times where I actually have a chance to respond. I used to have a terrible habit of checking emails the moment they arrived, but then forgetting them because I didn’t have time to respond right away. (In our company culture, IM’ing and telephoning are the go-to ways to get a quick response so I can get away with the periodic email checks. I know some cultures aren’t like this.)

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      I’m probably the only of my co-workers who does not use folders heavily. I have two folders, essentially—Inbox and Done.

      If it’s in my Inbox, I haven’t taken care of it (even if I’ve responded) fully.

      Once it’s done, I move it to my Done folder.

      If I ever need to search for an old email, I just search the Done folder.

        1. voluptuousfire*

          I had a done folder when I had Outlook. It was fabulous!

          At my PreviousJob, we used Gmail as our email client. While generally I’m a big fan of Gmail for personal email, I don’t think it’s all that great for business. There’s no option to flag things like you can in Outlook (or there was and it’s not available anymore). Also, searching from an email from any one of my colleagues would bring up any emails they sent from any one of the email boxes we had access to. That was a time waster.

          I sorely missed the flags in Outlook. I could check it off once I was done and that visual helped immensely. With Gmail I have to go in and read the entire chain to see if things were taken care of. Although the filters in Gmail are much easier to set up than the ones in Outlook.

          1. Maddy*

            Ugh — I totally agree — I hate gmail for work purposes (though I’ve had a personal gmail account for years). What annoys me is not having the little purple arrow that tells you whether you responded to something or not and the ability to search and find all messages in a chain. So much time wasted trying to figure out if the things that needs to be resolved has actually already been resolved!

            1. voluptuousfire*

              YES! Gmail’s conversation style emails are great for personal stuff but for business is frustrating. Outlook’s email trails are linear. With certain emails in Gmail, it’s like trying to read a game of Pong. Your eyes just flit from one side of the screen to the other in trying to read it.

        2. Bea W*

          I’ve employed the Done folder not just in Outlook but also on my drives for things when I need to go through umpteen files “Done” and “Old” (outdated versions that you can’t really delete or things you will just delete later once all of the revisions people have done on a document are finalized)

      1. Chinook*

        I am super organized with my Outlook and was shown how to copy an email to tasks. That way, I am reminded to give it a category and a due date and then it shows up in my task list to remind me to respond or to follow up if I haven’t heard and answer. It also allows me to add comments like how many times I have followed up and gotten no response or who I have checked with. Then, when I am done, I click it off and it shows up as crossed out in my task list.

    2. Windchime*

      Remember the Excel thread that was so popular? We should do one for Outlook!

      The thing I wish Outlook would do is to have the ability to run a rule automatically *after* a message has been read. I used an email client called Pegasus 10 years ago that could do this; why can’t Outlook?

  11. ArtsNerd*

    #3 – and automatic filtering to those folders!

    My current company is very email-heavy, and big on cc:ing a bunch of people on everything. When I first started my job, the onslaught of incoming email was so overwhelming I would have actual (not hyperbolic) impulses to hide under my desk. Setting up filters to move certain kinds of emails out of my inbox right away made SUCH a huge difference.

    Industry newsletters/reports, weekly schedules, customer service inquiries from our web site & notifications for our social media accounts are all emails that are good to keep & check regularly but can be addressed on my chosen schedule.

    1. lachevious*

      Yes to filtering! For the few folders I do maintain, that at least keeps the annoying filler-type of emails from popping up and distracting me.

  12. JEC*

    Is lack of awareness of email an abuse? I’ve had people print out my emails, write their responses on the paper by hand, then have their secretaries scan them and send them back to me as a pdf.

    I also sent someone a simple request for information by email once and, after not hearing back for a week, received a letter by postal mail responding to my questions. I tried to follow up by email and phone for weeks and was never able to get in touch with them again.

    1. lachevious*

      Lack of awareness should be the number one abuse – on one hand it’s job security, on the other it’s so awful being the secretary that’s having to scan and email the handwritten notes on a printed email.

      1. lachevious*

        Law – currently experiencing this very thing, unfortunately. Also I can’t tell if you are asking me or JEC, so forgive me if you were asking JEC!

      1. JEC*

        Also law, oddly enough. I’m not a lawyer but that’s almost exclusively who i work with, and every day I’m more and more surprised by the lack of basic ability for some people.

        1. lachevious*

          Tell me about it! It is getting better as new associates take the place of some of the more…umm…tech-challenged attorneys. I am not surprised at all that you were referring to the legal field.

    2. TK*

      My mom is on the board of a local non-profit, and they hired a secretary who hadn’t worked in an office since before the e-mail age. When she first started, she would send my mom documents to approve by printing them out, scanning them, and uploading them as an email attachment. The whole point of sending them was so my mom could make changes or corrections, which is hard to do when you don’t get a file you can edit! It was particularly weird in that she obviously knew how to do attachments, but apparently only of things she had already scanned!

    3. Persephone Mulberry*

      OK, first question that pops to mind is why are the secretaries scanning the response rather than just transcribing it in a reply email? I get that some execs prefer to stay in their stone age bubble (my boss is one of them) but it would never occur to me to reply that way (although I would probably scan and file my boss’s response for when he inevitably “doesn’t remember saying that.”)

  13. BB*

    This has been echoed on here a million times but really- don’t use your work email as your personal email. My boss does this and then complains about how he keeps getting emails and it’s overwhelming and he doesn’t understand why I don’t have 200 of them. It’s only 11:45am and I’ve already gotten about 40 junk emails in my personal email account and if they were constantly popping up, I’d cry. I still check my personal email during the day but I feel like it would be mega distracting if it was tied in with my work

    1. AB*

      That is why I have a work e-mail, a personal e-mail and a junk mail e-mail. I only give my personal email to friends and family. Anything I have to sign up for goes to my junk mail account that I only check once a week.

      1. Jessica (tc)*

        I do this as well. My work inbox is almost always at or near zero, because I am diligent about keeping on top of work emails and labeling them appropriately before moving them out of my inbox (we’re on Google Apps). At home, not so much, even with the personal email, a junk email, and a “school” email (I’m working towards a master’s degree).

  14. Ami Lynne*

    I’ve been reading AAM for some time now, and I’m surprised at the level of…well, animosity verging on hostility directed toward email and especially phone calls. They seem to be viewed as interruptions of work, rather than a necessary part of the job. I work in a highly time-sensitive field, and co-workers who put off listening to/responding to voicemails and emails are a major obstacle to my productivity. When did the line from necessary to nuisance get crossed?

    1. Kai*

      I’m with you on that one. I’d never be able to only check email at certain points in the day–my job requires me to always be ready to respond. So I think it depends on the job.

      That, and the fact that so much email these days is unnecessary. I get plenty of time-sensitive emails, but an equal amount of forwarded articles, or FYIs, or getting copied on things I don’t really need. Not everyone uses email as efficiently as they could, in my experience.

    2. Windchime*

      Yeah, it’s a balancing act. I would seriously piss people off if I only checked email 3 times a day. I’m part of a small team of 6 developers, and we get email notifications if the daily build is broken or if the ETL failed on the test server. Waiting to check email till after lunch means that the whole process is held up for everyone. Waiting probably works in many offices, but not in ours.

      That’s not to say that every email needs to be responded to immediately; most don’t. But we still have to be watching our email to make that determination.

      1. Matt*

        This. If I’d check my mail only 3 times a day, they would all start calling me instead, which is exactly what I don’t want.

  15. The Wall of Creativity*

    And let’s not forget the need to not screw up other people’s lives with email:
    – reply to alls
    – needless thank you emails
    – inappropriate subject lines
    – inappropriate high priority stamps
    – read receipts (aaaagggghhhhhh!)
    – sending files when you could send links
    – emailing about two unconnected subjects in the same email
    – etc

    1. ArtsNerd*

      +10 to inappropriate high priority stamps! Your charity fundraising campaign is not my urgent business.

    2. Kai*

      +1 for the needless thank-yous. Getting praise for something big or out of the ordinary is nice, but I have one colleague in particular who sends a lot of emails that essentially amount to “thanks for still doing your job.”

    3. Joey*

      Needless thank yous is something we debate about and go back and forth on. One the one hand its sometimes used to acknowledge something, usually appreciation or that a message was viewed. Sometimes this comes in handy if you infact went out of your way to do something for someone or a message is time sensitive.

      On the other hand some people are so overloaded with emails they want to do everything in their power to reduce the unnecessary ones.

      Personally, the thank yous flow to my peers, reports, and clients. I limit them for execs and other key people whom I know get tons of emails.

      1. Arjay*

        Can we agree that while many thank yous are unnecessary, ALL “you’re welcome” emails are unnecessary? Sometimes I send thank yous that probably aren’t strictly necessary, but seem like a nice closing gesture, especially with people I don’t work with that often. I’m sure they’re just trying to be polite and respond, but the “you’re welcome” is meaningless.

      2. Cath in Canada*

        What would be really great would be a “send thanks” option in the email that doesn’t actually send anything to the recipient’s inbox, but lets them know that they were appreciated. Kinda like the Facebook “like” button. All that person’s received thanks could show up as a number in the top corner that they can click on if they want to see who sent thanks for what, and when.

    4. LQ*

      Thank yous are about one of my least favorite F words. FEELINGS. Some people really like them and they can make a huge difference in how some people come at work. If we were all robots (I cannot wait for they day I get my cyborg brain) then you’d never need thank you emails. But until that day people feel like they are important and it takes 2 seconds to delete or file away.

      Also read receipts, block em. Never send. So much better.

    5. Sparrow*

      There have been some times at my work where a large set of people was emailed in error. Then you start seeing multiple reply-all emails asking to be removed from the email chain. After that there are more reply-all emails telling everyone not to reply-all. Argh.

        1. doreen*

          We had that the other day- it seems the people who “reply all” with ” Stop replying all- it just slows down the system even more” don’t see the irony.

          1. Jamie*

            I often wish for a word where you need a license or at least admin rights to use “reply all.” It’s a dangerous tool in the hands of the reckless.

    6. AB*

      I may be guilty of the thank you e-mails… If someone sends me something I requested but that don’t say or ask anything that I would need to respond to, I send a quick thank you so they know I received their email. I absolutely can’t stand it when I send an email (esp if I had a question) and people don’t get back to me to let me know that they received it. Far to often in those cases, they come back to me a week later wanting to know why I never sent such and such.

      1. Jamie*

        Thank you email is a culture thing. I send them and I don’t mind getting them – although I don’t notice if I don’t.

        Co-worker: Can you do that thing I need?
        Me: Sure, it’s done.
        Co-worker: Thanks

        Yes – 3 emails could have been reduced to 2 and deep in my heart even without the email I’d infer the thanks…but I just never want to have a conversation with anyone that revolved around my being too whatever to read a one word email from them, or telling people they should stop being gracious to me.

        I just can’t go along with discouraging courtesy.

  16. C average*

    I don’t entirely agree about the folders advice and the deletion advice. I think both of those depend on what kind of role you have and how your organization uses email. It also depends a bit on how your mind works.

    For the first few years I worked at my current company, I didn’t use folders, and I generally didn’t have any problems staying on top of things. Email didn’t feel like a problem to me.

    At a colleague’s recommendation, I created folders and filed everything to get myself to inbox zero. And I was lost! I had set up folders in a way I thought would be intuitive to me, but they wound up confusing me and complicating my search efforts.

    I realized I tend to have really good recall of who sent me what when, and because SEO is part of my role, I have pretty good search kungfu, too. Folders are the solution to a problem I just don’t have. So I abandoned them and was much happier when I did.

    I know they’re a godsend to many, but they just aren’t something I’ve found to be useful.

    I also delete nothing. NOTHING. I frequently get asked why I did a particular thing when, and some of these requests go waaaaaay back. I once had to produce the out-of-office notification from a higher-up as justification for my delaying a particular action. (I needed that person’s signoff and couldn’t proceed when they were out of office.)

    The no-deletion thing is a little crazy, I know, and I’d never handle my personal email that way, but experience has taught me that in a role like mine, I really do need to be a digital hoarder.

    1. C average*

      By the way, I know this is anecdata. And it’s probably worth mentioning that I have ADHD. I can’t keep things in drawers, either. I hang all my clothes because otherwise I’d forget I own them. I’ve learned that it’s easier to adapt my tools to my mind than to try to adapt my mind to my tools.

      1. Just a Reader*

        That’s such a good point. All the tools in the world aren’t going to help you if they don’t align with how your mind works.

        I’m very list oriented and not at all visual. So while my whole department works from charts and visual timelines, I have to convert everything into a written list to be able to execute on it. So while people are using apps like Timeli to track and delegate work, it’s not something I do unless I have to.

      2. Chinook*

        I work with a couple of women like you – if they don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. One of them actually prints out emails that she needs to reply to because she is also tactile and needs to feel that they exist. He desk is piled high with paper (less than before I started as I took some tasks off her table) and her monitor covered with sticky notes and they will never disappear because that is how she works. Luckily, she realizes it is odd, especially for someone who grew up using computers, and doesn’t mind being ribbed about it.

        1. voluptuousfire*

          I used to do that, print out emails. Granted it was a waste of paper in a time where everyone’s going green, but it helped a lot. If I didn’t mark it as done (both in Outlook by clicking the flag and writing “DONE” on the printout) I didn’t believe it was done. But again, that was the only paper on my desk. :)

          Although my last job was cool in that instead of using post its for various reminders on my monitor (which I did with more immediate stuff), I was able to write on the walls of my office with dry erase markers. Our walls were glass with vinyl privacy dividers so that worked really well.

      3. Bea W*

        Yes. I don’t move my mail to folders until I have addressed whatever it is I need to address. It otherwise lives in my inbox grouped by categories.

        Speaking of this. One of my office moves, I had packed up early, and had nothing on my desk. For the life of me I had a really hard time remembering what I needed to work on. Out of sight, out of mind!

        1. Windchime*

          I like to write things down, too. Then it lives in an untidy pile on my desk. But I can remember the shape of the paper and how it was written…….it’s in blue ink, on the back of a paper that had part of the corner torn off. That is how it’s sealed in my mind; if I try to re-copy it onto another paper, the magic is lost and then it’s just a generic paper. I also document important things into OneNote, but I keep the paper as well because it’s the Official Recording Of The Data.

    2. LQ*

      I agree with this. I dump a few very specific items in folders. I wish tagging or categories were easier to use in Outlook because then I could do that. But I keep it all in my inbox and I almost never delete things.

      (I’m an extremely organized person, and my physical workspace only has folders for the currently open projects sitting out and a glass of water. But my inbox, it doesn’t slow me down at all to leave it like that.)

  17. KC*

    I got great advice once from a management presentation at work. When it comes to email: Deal with it, Delegate it, or Delete it (“The 3 D’s”).

    In my case, it’s more like Deal with it, Delegate it, or Archive it. But I have a “Done” folder, where all of my “non-actionable” emails get sent. I like keeping my Inbox tidy.

      1. Jamie*

        Love archive.

        Little bit of advice to the admins out there, make sure you are saving the .pst files to the server so they are backed up. By default they store locally so if the client crashes if you can’t recover it you’ve wiped out the past.

        I learned this lesson the hard way – and did get it back with a freezer bag, paper towel, and a lot of closing my eyes and making wishes.

        1. Bea W*

          Not only are they lost if you crash, but by default they are stored in some weird hard to find non-nonsensical place buried under layers of sub-folders. You will never find them when you upgrade your machine.

          1. Jamie*

            Yep. Windows 7 it’s C: > Users > [user name] > AppData (usually hidden) > Local > Microsoft > Outlook.

            And it’s sad that I knew that without looking, but I did check to confirm because I’m cautious that way.

  18. Sparrow*

    I am all about folders for organizing my email. I work in software development, on multiple projects at a time, so it helps me to keep things separated in project specifc folders. We use Outlook at work, so I create rules to route certain types of emails to different folders. Most of the time these are system generated emails that I can delete, so it helps to have them separate from my Inbox. My “Waiting for Response” folder is helpful for keeping track of emails where I need feedback from someone else.

    Email is the primary form of communication in my company, so Outlook is the first thing I open each morning and I keep it open during the day. I keep the desktop notifications active, but I’ve gotten used to ignoring them if I need to focus on another piece of work.

    I frequenty delete emails, but they end up in my Deleted Items folder and once there I forget about them. Right now my Deleted items folder has around 17,000 items. Once I start getting warnings that my mailbox is near the size limit, that usually prompts me to clear out the Deleted Items folder.

    Also, I realized that I didn’t actively start using email until 1995, when I started college. I’m not sure how I survived back then!

  19. Mints*

    I wish I could use gmail for work. I use so many filters and labels, that everything is basically pre-filed I just hit “archive” when is done. But Outlook, with folders and categories, make things feel like they’re duplicates. I’ll deal, but I’m crossing my fingers that my next job uses gmail

  20. 5 Outlook Hacks*

    (1) Turning off the popup message and email indicator = HUGE increase in productivity
    (2) Rules for sorting things into folders = helps with prioritization of reading messages, minimizes clutter in primary inbox
    (3) Grouping by conversation = helpful if you’re going to be on threads where something will get resolved after a flurry of messages. Unhelpful because Outlook doesn’t do a great job with it.
    (4) Formatting views = Outlook hack #1! I’ve formatted my messages to be different colors depending on how I am emailed (cc, bcc, only me etc).
    (5) #4 again. It is the best.

      1. Jamie*

        Not enough colors and I need more shades because my categories are very specific and nuanced.

        I never understood the outlook hate – my Outlook is my happy place.

    1. Windchime*

      Oh, yeah, the view formatting. I love this. I have it set up for all my Failure notifications to be in red, bold font so they really stand out. Also, anything from my manager is in a different font/color as well.

  21. Mimmy*

    Oh goodness, I am pathologically guilty of #4 (checking email every time a new message arrives)!!! It absolutely is a Pavlovian response!

  22. Becky*

    We use gmail at my office, and I love it. I do about 95% of my job via email, and having it track threads and be quickly searchable among all of the labels is amazing. I have labels set up, and they are organized more by my daily workflow than by project; so all the things that need quotes are in one folder, everything that is ready to order is in another, etc. We switched from Outlook about a year ago, and I would never go back.

    I agree that checking email throughout the day is a time suck. I scan my email in the morning and afternoon. Every other day I have to go through and actually read/delegate/respond to/sort all of the email, but I can’t even do that every day AND keep up with the other work I’m expected to do.

  23. Garrett*

    My big issue with email at work is that we have a size limit. I work in a regulated industry and often need to refer to old emails, so I save lots of them. But, inevitably, I get the warning that I’m about to exceed my limit. I get rid of attachments and delete old sent emails, but it’s always a chore.

    I tried archiving, but it doesn’t seem to help with this problem. So, I have to be picky about saving now, which has it’s pros and cons.

    1. Bea W*

      I work in a regulated environment as well. This is an ongoing problem for many people, and it’s made worse by people constantly sending huge file attachments in email. So I’ll suggest a #7 in this list –

      7. Don’t use email to send documents and huge attachments internally when you can use a network file sharing system. This could be a simple network drive or something like SharePoint. Save your monster PowerPoint presentation on your shared space, and send the link in your email instead.

      Also, in two workplaces we’ve had a separate archive system just for this reason to keep all of those emails while enabling people to delete them from Outlook and free up active email server space, and in two workplaces, IT has suddenly discontinued it without ever informing anyone the automatic archiving and the server that stores all of those messages is not longer functional. Yes, those were not fun days when I found that out. I think I will never trust the 3rd party archive stuff again.

      My first job had no separate archive server. So I got really good at .pst files. I left behind 2G of email archive related to a project I worked on for 9 years. It was actually used too. I had been one of two people who had been on the project since inception, and that meant I had a continuous archive of everything dating back before other people started. I kept these .pst files on the network and taught people how to use them. It saved a lot of headaches.

  24. Bea W*

    6. Using email when it would be easier, quicker, and less confusing to have a conversion over the phone.

    I came back from lunch today and found umpteen inane emails about setting up a new user account, cc’d to the entire group. Before going to lunch there was already a steady audio alert every couple minutes. The person had question after question after question.

    Pick up the phone and speak to the person you need to speak to. Please do not spam everyone (or even the one person!) with a new question every 30 seconds or after each reply. Just stop it. Stop. FOR THE LUVAGOD STOP! PLEAAAAAAAAAASE!!!!! That conversation that got dragged out to an hour or more would have been 2 minutes on the phone.

    Email is great for a one-off question. It is not meant to have an active running conversation with someone as if you were speaking to each other out loud. Please do not use it that way at work. Please, I BEG you. Don’t have running conversations in email!

  25. Jkristy*

    I don’t use many folders in Outlook. It’s pretty much between Inbox and Deleted. But I do save the messages to my network folder on the computer. For example, if HR sends me an email to add a new deduction for an employee, I will save the message in my Payroll-Deductions folder (after I print a copy for the payroll file).

  26. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

    I shall be the contrarian:

    As of this second, I have 49,905 items in my in box and 70,226 items in my sent. I hate folders and won’t use them. Outlook search is way more efficient in my world than folders (which I think are old fashioned and clunky).

    I open and deal with emails receive within minutes of receipt – either a reply or a forward to someone else to handle.

    And, my-system-which-works-for-me, is the keystone to a highly productive flow.

    (I literally work in email, though. That is my work, so, a big YMMV to any other human on the planet.)

  27. Cassie*

    I don’t use folders by categories anymore. Like others have mentioned, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where to file an email if the email pertains to two or more categories. I’ll use tags instead (on Thunderbird) but mostly I just use the search function.

    To prevent the old email folders from getting gigantic in size, I do set up folders for each year (or sometimes two quarters at a time). This was because my email used to get backed by IT and they did not like large email folders which would take forever to get backed up.

    Actually, these days – I’m mostly doing searches in Gmail because it just works better.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      Ha, nope.

      Not a n00b and not a bottom poster. Bottom posting is a thing in certain niches (primarly tech) but it is rarely seen in the wild outside of that, much like a Dvorak keyboard.

  28. BritCred*

    I use folders, category flags and marking read or unread.

    Since the folders are by client name “Company A” “Company B” and I have a separate folder with sub folders marked for our secondary site – which deals with the same clients but on completely unrelated matters – Its very easy to find something.

    With certain clients I’ll have more subfolders – Remittances, Self Bills, Queries etc….

    If something has info on it – like System logons or telephone numbers – that don’t get used often it gets marked with a blue catagory flag – again go to client folder, sort by flag – found in a minute.

    If I’ve actioned something but need to keep an eye on it I have a folder marked ‘awaiting reply’ or ‘waiting for info to action’. Therefore I can see what is in my inbox and needs work and what I need to chase. Once I have cleared it to some extent it can go into the client headed folder.

    I’ve had about 5 people searching for emails at the same time and because of my system found it in 2 minutes flat whilst they take 30-35 mins because their inbox is just all one long list. My Auditor used to love me because he’d give me a list of required documents and I’d have found the electronic copies and emailed them to him in 10 minutes. He was used to having to wait about 3 hours….lol

Comments are closed.