As a Virtual Personal Assistant I am known to be very organised. I can pride myself for getting compliments for always keeping a good overview and not forgetting any of the jobs that were trusted to me. And a major reason for this, is that I am the master of my e-mails.
So much communication is now being done via e-mail; it is no wonder that people are getting overloaded and lose track of things. But it does not have to be like that! If you want to keep on top of your business, it is essential to learn how to properly organise your e-mails. And for those of you who are interested in trying this tested and proven method, I will explain here how I manage mine. It takes some practice and some discipline, but if I can do it, everybody can!
It is based on these three principles:
- Your inbox contains only e-mails, that require action from you
- Your ‘sent items’ folder contains only e-mails that require action from somebody else. This should be checked regularly!
- Use your agenda to be your memory
I will explain here below in detail how these three steps should be executed by you.
1. Your inbox contains only e-mails, that require action from you
Sometimes I see somebody’s inbox and I am amazed by the number of e-mails in there. They leave every e-mail ever received, it has become one long and unorganised list. I get real icky when I see this, as I am a firm believer of staying organised by cleaning up.If you do not clean up, this means too many distractions exist that make it hard to focus on the things that matter! And we do not want distractions, because they will make you inefficient and you do not have time for that!
When you do not already have subfolders, you now start making them. Use them to file the mails that do not require your action, but that you do want to keep for any future reference. I suggest the following subfolders:
- Folders per clients containing all mails concerning that client, either sent by the client itself, by suppliers, colleagues, etc., as long as the e-mail is concerning that specific client
- Folders per project. If it is a project for one client, make it a subfolder of this client. If it is for multiple customers, make it on same level as your clients’ folders
- Folders on your company’s products, services
- Folders on organisational issues, procedures, IT
- Folders for networking, newsletters, etc.
Of course you are free to make them to your liking and change them over time to meet your changing needs
Now you are ready for the important stuff:
when a new e-mail comes in, you read in detail or you only scan, but it should enable you to do one of the following things:
- Take the requested action/reply. After the action is completed, move the e-mail to the relevant subfolder
- Leave it to take the requested action later. You can even label it or categorize it depending on your e-mail system, but it stays in the inbox
- Move it to a different folder for possible later reference as it does not require any action, or the only action required was you reading the mail, which you obviously just did
- Delete it because it does not require any action and it is not worth keeping (e.g. all mails in the category: “thank you for your mail, I will get back on it asap”)
This will result in your inbox actually turning into your to-do list. I like this idea so much that, in case I want to add something to my to-do list which does not come from an e-mail, I just send an e-mail to myself to make sure I do not forget it!
p.s. I won’t make a ‘rule’ on how often you should read your new e-mails. Already plenty written about this. I only recommend not doing it during a task you are executing, but wait till you are ready to move on to a new task.
2a. Your ‘sent items’ folder contains only e-mails that require action from somebody else
When you send a new e-mail to somebody, or reply to their mail already sent to you, the reply will go automatically into your ‘sent items’ folder. You want to make sure that this folder only has e-mails in it that require follow up from somebody else. In this way, this folder will be a reminder of all your tasks in process that you cannot continue yourselves without the input of somebody else.
It is very important that you keep track of these mails, because if the other person does not reply, you are unable to finish the task! And as we all know all too well, not all your mails get a reply fast enough to your liking, or they might not get a reply at all. This should be a big alert, because these non-responsive persons are now standing in the way of you successfully finishing your task!
You need to teach yourself to remove an item from this list as soon as the person has replied (with a useful reply other than: “I will let you know asap”, because that is not really a reply that makes you want to forget they still owe you a proper reply). This takes some discipline, but it is crucial in this method.
And I will warn you: you will fail at this. You will fail, because when a reply comes in your inbox, you will be focussed on following up on this e-mail or filing this e-mail in a subfolder. Nevertheless you need to teach yourself to go back to your sent items folder and either delete or move the original mail to the appropriate folder.
No worries, you will get better at this over time; when you make a habit out of this and when you start to see the benefits.
And of course don’t forget to apply the second necessary part of this principle:
2b. Check regularly if your sent items still only have items that require action from somebody else.
I try to do this once a week. Go through your sent items and take one of the following actions for each item:
- Delete or move an item from the sent-items list because you already got a reply
- Send a reminder to the mail-recipient to ask them to please reply to the mail below (after sending the reminder, you remove the original mail you sent; because the original mail is no longer necessary in this folder to let you keep track on this job, this task is now being done by the reminder e-mail).
- Decide you want to give the mail-recipient more time for replying and leave the mail in the folder
Follow up on a sent e-mail either in person or by phone:
In case you speak to anyone in person or by phone about the topic of an outstanding e-mail, decide what to do with the e-mail based on the outcome of the conversation.
If you want to be complete, you modify the e-mail and add notes of what you discussed with this person, to help you remember the content and/or agreed next steps from the conversation.
- the situation is now solved, which means you can file the sent mail in a subfolder;
- the other person still needs to come back to you, then you can leave it in your sent items folder.
- You now have to take some action (e.g. you asked by mail to clarify something; during the conversation the topic is clarified; you can continue with the task), then you move the mail from the sent-items folder to the inbox, as it is no longer waiting for reply and back on your action list!
p.s. if you work with g–mail, this principle should be a applied a bit differently as it is impossible to remove e-mails from your sent-items list without actually deleting them. I would recommend to make a subfolder in sent items and call it e.g.’ waiting for reply’. You label your sent items with ‘waiting for reply’ and remove the label as soon as the reply comes in. Then in your weekly general check you do not go through all sent items but trough all ‘waiting for reply’ items.
3. Use your agenda to be your memory
First of all I use my agenda quite basically for repetitive tasks. Every Monday morning I have to update one turnover report and send a file with uptodate travel plans. I have these tasks scheduled in my agenda and set to warn me every week. I can choose to snooze the agenda pop-up to be reminded again in a certain time or I can do the task right away and close the agenda pop-up.
Secondly I use my agenda in combination with managing my e-mails. For example: you get an e-mail from client X asking you to contact person Y and make sure you get their reply no later than the end of next week. I
So how to make sure you keep this deadline?
- Send the e-mail with question to Y.
- Move the e-mail that client X sent from your inbox to your client’s folder.
- The mail sent to Y goes into my sent-items.
I would normally only see this sent e-mail again (if I do not get a reply) when I do my weekly overall sent-items check. However this general check does not get done every week at exactly the same time. Or the deadline might even be sooner than the next upcoming overall check. And I really don’t want to miss the deadline on this one! To make sure I don’t, I enter an appointment my agenda on the due date, and then choose when I want to receive a reminder of this appointment.
Furthermore, do not forget to add the sent item as an attachment to the appointment in the agenda.
You can now move that sent mail as well to the client folder, as your agenda will remember the action and warn when it is time to start acting again on this topic. And when it does, the e-mail you need to follow up on is again right there!, Noo need to search it separately before you can continue. This is such a timesaver!
Basically, every time an incoming our outgoing e-mail relate to a time in the not so near future, considering removing the mail from your inbox or sent items and combine them with a properly timed agenda item to keep your inbox and sent items as clean, lean & mean as possible!
Applying these principles really help me stay on top of my game. And of course I understand, the more e-mails you get, the harder it is to keep them under control and to apply these rules. But then it is all the more important to clean up and be efficient! I recommend to use this method if you are struggling with your mails; as it has really helped me already for years with getting my stuff done!
If you have any questions about this topic, please let me know. I would be happy to help you out where I can! In case you are really in over your head with your e-mails and if you need a Virtual Assistant’s help to take part of this workload out of your hands on a recurring basis, I would also be very happy to discuss how I can be of support to you!