People process email in all sorts of different ways. Search for the terms "manage email better" and you'll see millions of articles with titles that start "4 Tips...", "Seven Ways...", "Top 10...", "6 Tricks...," and so on. There are plenty of suggestions out there.
But instead of several changes, I suggest just one. Study how a person uses email, then recommend one thing to change. Not 10. Not seven. Not four. Just one. Email use, after all, is a habit built up over time, and people are unlikely to change four things at once. It's much easier if you have only one thing to change.
Here are a few of the different types of email users I've encountered—along with the single tip I suggest you try for each type. Since I work most often with Google users, these are all focused on Gmail, but you can adapt the approach to the email system you use.
The various types of email users
The Never Deleter has more email than anyone. With thousands of emails in their inbox, they keep everything. It's like someone who decided to keep all their junk mail, right alongside their regular mail. The best way to help a Never Deleter is to reduce the email inflow rate: Show them how to unsubscribe from email lists.
A Oneboxer leaves everything in the Inbox. Unlike the Never Deleters, a Oneboxer deletes some messages, but doesn't archive or sort email. It all remains in the Inbox. To distinguish between a Never Deleter and a Oneboxer, open the Trash. If you see real email from real people in Trash, the person's a Oneboxer. Help a Oneboxer enable the default Inbox type (Settings > Inbox > Inbox Type: Default > Check All Categories) and categories (Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums). Gmail will then separate incoming email into one of these categories. In case an email is mis-classified, show the person how to drag-and-drop an email from one category to another.
For the Label Lover, every email deserves a clear classification. You'll identify them by the long list of labels along the left side of the screen. One way to help a Label Lover is to make sure they know how to create and apply filters automatically, to reduce the time they might otherwise use to manually apply labels.
The most difficult to identify emailer is the Email-is-my-task-lister. Sometimes, they look like a Label Lover, but their labels include Waiting For, Next Actions, Project, or other David Allen Getting Things Done type terms. Sometimes you can identify them by their use of stars in Gmail to indicate tasks, projects, or items that require action. Email-is-my-task-listers should probably stop using the Gmail app interface and instead try the Inbox by Gmail (http://inbox.google.com) app. Inbox by Gmail builds in the ability to set reminders (tasks!), snooze email to reappear at a future date and/or time, and pin priority items.
Email Chatters live in email. It's always open. Send an email, and you'll get a reply—and another reply. And a random update on another project. And a question about that upcoming trip. And a "Thank you!" email to your email thanking them for the project update. The best way to help an Email Chatter is to adjust email notification settings. On the desktop, turn off notifications (Settings > General > Desktop Notifications > Mail Notifications Off). On mobile, change the fetch frequency from immediate to every 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or more.
The Never Checker is the antithesis of the Email Chatter. Send them an email and they'll never know, since they never check email. You can't assume they'll login, so you need to find out which communication tool they do use: SMS? Twitter? Facebook? Armed with that knowledge, you might set up an IFTTT applet to send them a notification on a service they use when they receive an email that requires attention. (For example, you might trigger an SMS when a new Gmail arrives from a specific address.)
If none of the above categories fits, the person may be a Periodic Purger, who every now and then makes a valiant effort to keep email under control. Help the Periodic Purger search effectively, so as to find and delete email no longer needed. That means effectively using Gmail search terms, such as "before:2006-12-31", to find all old email, then selecting all items found and either archiving or deleting them.
You may notice that people struggle with a Blend of two—or more—emailer types above. But that doesn't mean you should give them multiple tips. Instead, identify the most prominent problem and suggest a single solution. A month or two later, check in again. If you see a different type of emailer, then your advice was a success. It may be time to pass along a new tip.
Finally, what do you do if you encounter an "Inbox Zero" Master, a person who somehow clears their inbox of all email every day? My only suggestion is to acknowledge their amazing achievement, bow, and walk away slowly with your head reverently lowered.
- Quick tip: Archive old email in your Gmail inbox the easy way (TechRepublic)
- 5 tips to help free up storage space on your Google account (TechRepublic)
- Five Gmail tips that will make you an inbox ninja (ZDNet)
- Three tools for better task management in Google Apps (TechRepublic)
- IFTTT: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
- How Google stealthily built a "Getting Things Done" suite of apps (TechRepublic)
What type of email users do you encounter at your organization? What tip do you offer each of these email user types to help them keep things under control? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.
Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.