Email Management for Students

Gmail - Inbox (10 000)

"Gmail - Inbox 10000" Courtesy of Flickr user paperjam. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Dear New First Year Students: be prepared for war with your email inbox throughout your university/college career! The influx of school/course/club announcements, work-related emails, and SMA (Save My Ass) messages from classmates can be dizzying. Sometimes staying organized seem to be an illusion, and while there are many email organization systems on the internet not all are suitable for students. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here is an email management system that works for me. I hope it can help you on your quest to staying organized.

First a note on my e-mail habits:

  • I use Gmail* and receive 2 – 20 emails a day
  • I strongly dislike having unread e-mails in my inbox
  • I receive school, work, and communication from close friends in this e-mail. As well, my “official” school email is forwarded to this account
  • I do not receive facebook emails, twitter updates, product promos and other crap in this e-mail (that’s taken care of through a “crappy stuff” e-mail)
  • SotN-related email doesn’t get forward into this account, but I use the same system on my SotN inbox

* This system can be implemented for Hotmail/MSN/Window’s Live/Yahoo!/Your official school e-mail, but Gmail has the best set of tools for organizing and managing the email inbox.

Most importantly…

  • Messages must be easily locatable
  • Messages not immediately useful is filed out of the way
  • Emails requiring reply are answered as soon as possible
  • Documents for course work are stored for record unless they exceed 50 MB in size

The Basic Elements are…

1. Labels and Priority Inbox

Gmail labels are awesome because they allow one message to have multiple affiliations. They are also the cornerstone of this management system. The labels I use include “university”, “work”, “miscellaneous”, and “awaiting decision” as well as the inbuilt “important” and “starred” functionality. Each incoming message is tagged with at least one label. Furthermore, I use Priority Inbox with 4 levels: “important and unread“, “all starred“, “all awaiting decision“, and “everything else“.

2. Filters

All incoming e-mail forwarded from my “official” school e-mail has “university” as a label. Those from my boss and coworkers are labeled “work”. E-mail with certain words in its title – such as the name of a school club – is tagged with the name of the club, and so on. When set up properly, filters minimize the amount of time spent manually filing e-mails, so its worth the time investment.

3. Keyboard shortcuts

Enabling this (in Gmail settings) greatly speeds up the email filing process. Press “l” for labels, “j” for the next email, “e” for archive, etc. Don’t know what shortcuts to use? just press “?” (question mark) for a full list right on your screen. If you’re new to keyboard shortcuts, this might take some getting use to. Accidentally pressing a key in Gmail can result in unwanted archivals, deletions, and mutes, so be careful.

4. Gmail Labs

Labs are amazing! My favourites are:

  • Signature Tweaks – a must as it puts the signature above any quoted text when replying to or forwarding a message (this is a lot more logical than the other way around so I don’t know why this isn’t the default…)
  • Undo Send – a must for anyone who’s trigger happy with the send button
  • Inbox Preview – shows a preview of the inbox while Gmail is loading and is useful for slower computers or turtle-speed internet connections
  • Refresh POP Accounts – useful for checking POP accounts (e.g. that “official” school email forwarding into Gmail) without going into email settings.
  • Some other useful labs: Filter Import/Export, Google Calendar Gadget, Send & Archive, Title Tweak, Preview Pane (New!), and Unread Message Icon.

Yeah… I really do love labs 🙂

So how does this all work together?

When I open my inbox, I first check to see if any messages can be deleted. These include random chain letters from friends, ads from websites I shop at, and the occasional junk email. If there is an email I have been waiting for, I open that first. If nothing jumps out, I open the first message in the “important and unread” section of the inbox and skim through it. If it’s some sort of announcement or something not requiring a reply (e.g. notice about homework from prof), I’ll make sure it’s labeled correctly and archive it. If it is something that requires a quick reply, I reply, ensure the labels are correct, and then archive it. If I’m in a hurry or the email entails doing something I’m not sure about yet, I ensure the labels are correct on that e-mail, add the “awaiting decision” label, and archive it. If it’s something really important and I know I’ll have to look at it again soon (e.g. exam location announcements), I ensure the labels are correct, star it, and archive it. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Once there are no more new messages, there should be no messages in the “important and unread” and “everything else” sections of the inbox (as archiving a message removes it from the inbox). Everything important has a star and shows up prominently near the top. Everything about which I have to make a decision has an “awaiting decision” label and shows up just below the starred messages.

After going through the new messages, I take a quick look at the starred messages. I note anything important coming up and remove stars from things that are no longer important. Then I move on to “awaiting decision” to see if I could make any decisions or reply to any emails. If I can, I do whatever’s necessary, then remove the “awaiting decision” label.

Whenever I need something, I usually use the search function, so you might ask: why bother applying labels if you’re going to search for something anyway? Let’s take the example of my coworker Bob and my professor Bob. If I want a message from my professor, I can limit the search to the “university” label. If I want a message from my coworker Bob, I can limit it to “work”. This is especially helpful when I try to search for something ambiguous like “report”, “deadline” or “meeting”.

As I don’t receive too many messages a day and I check my e-mail just about every day, this system works well and I rarely feel overwhelmed. However, I know this system isn’t for everyone (200 new incoming messages anyone…?) For more email management tips, check out this comprehensive source for some ideas. There are some great tips herehere, and here for Gmail users, and if you don’t use Gmail, switch to it! (but some general tips are here and here for those of you still dragging your feet).

How do you organize your e-mail? Do you use another tool I’ve missed? Share 🙂

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