4 Email Best Practices That'll Help You Control the Chaos After Busy Season

If your water lab ditched email best practices during the busy summer season, catching up on these correspondences can seem impossible. But don't panic: According to Fortune, even tidying expert Marie Kondo admits that organizing digital clutter "doesn't go as perfectly as tidying the home."

It's never too late to wrangle your inbox by following email management best practices at work. So as summer draws to an end, and your inbox requests have finally started to taper off, this presents a great opportunity for digital decluttering.

Follow these tips to manage email overload and get back on top of your inbox pile — once and for all.

1. Block Out Inbox Maintenance Time

Try not to stress about the current state of your inbox. You've been busy expediting water testing for beaches and public pools, getting interns up to speed, and putting out all the fires that are to be expected with the summer season. But now it's wise to tackle all the nonurgent messages that have piled up.

Take a break from fielding automated form responses or queries from staff members and block out some time in your calendar solely for sorting emails. Even if it's only 30 minutes a day, this dedicated time will be incredibly beneficial as you seek out inbox zero status.

2. Delete the Easy Clutter

When you have several pages of emails in your inbox, try organizing messages in different ways. Sorting by sender or subject is a great way to find messages that you can delete in bulk. For example, consider deleting automated LIMS reports that you're copied on or industry association newsletters that are no longer relevant.

A good place to start is by looking for messages that were sent by an organization instead of an individual. These emails are less likely to require any action from you. With a few clicks, you can start to make progress on your email cleaning spree.

It might be tempting to just file each message into a folder (more on that in a bit), but deleting unnecessary messages will help make your mailbox more searchable in the future. The next time you want to find an email about a specific reagent order, for example, it will be easier to find the right message if it's not hidden among a bunch of old newsletter updates or marketing blasts when you type "reagent" into the search bar.

3. Create a Folder System

There are two schools of thought on folders: minimalism and subfolders. There are no hard and fast rules for organizing email because it's an individual preference. So experiment with different methods to find out which works for you.

No matter which strategy you choose, one rule is consistent with all email best practices: The inbox is not meant for storage. Anything that you need to keep around should be moved off the internet and into either your intranet platform or a server of some kind.

Folder Minimalism

Marie Kondo's strategy is to put emails into two categories: "unprocessed" and "save." Unprocessed emails — unread or need replies — stay in her inbox. The rest are saved in one of three other folders. To apply this approach to your water lab, use broad categories, such as accounting, reporting, and human resources.

Subfolders and Labels

If minimalism doesn't work for you, folders will save your inbox from chaos. The Muse recommends creating an easy-to-decode subfolder or label system. With this strategy, you could create main folders, such as clients, lab staff, supply vendors, regulatory updates, and reports. Then, each folder could be further organized by subfolders or labels.

While it may be appealing to create a subfolder for every scenario, this method of email organization should make your life simpler — so proceed thoughtfully. You don't want to be overturning every rock for one piece of information, after all.

4. Organize for the Future

Once you've established a folder structure, it's time to shift your focus to email best practices for the future.

Start by taking advantage of automated email sorting. Most email providers have a feature that will allow you to set up inbox rules (Outlook) or filters (Gmail) that will do the tedious sorting for you. For example, you could set it up so that LIMS reports automatically go into a certain folder.

Next, unsubscribe from newsletters that you never read, snooze or spam messages from competitors or general nonsense, and continue to set aside a specific time to check email so it's not a constant distraction. According to Fast Company, the average worker receives 124 emails a day, and when lab managers get bogged down by the minutiae of email instead of focusing on strategy, it can cause them to scale back on their critical leadership responsibilities.

In the article for Fast Company, Michigan State management professor Russ Johnson explains, "Being overwhelmed causes managers to buckle down and focus on the most familiar, day-to-day stuff. They stay in their comfort zone, and future-oriented thoughts suffer."

Instead of immediately responding to every email as it comes in, try to reduce the amount of time you spend in your inbox. Communicate your new strategy to your team so they don't expect immediate responses. By adopting these email best practices, you'll be able to focus on the lab's bigger goals for the future instead of getting sucked into a digital vortex.

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Kelly McSweeney
Science and Technology Writer
Armed with a master's degree in writing and a decade of professional work in scientific publishing, Kelly McSweeney writes about science and technology innovations. She translates complicated topics into stories that capture the curiosity of everyone from casual readers to technical experts. Kelly has degrees from Emerson College and the University of Vermont, and has worked on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics publications at Wiley, In Compliance magazine, and Pearson. Her articles about the latest research are published by ZDNet, Northrop Grumman, and Wiley.