Chances are the vast majority of your work communication happens through email. If you’re looking for a job, most professional communication will begin at the email level. There are some basic rules to professional email etiquette (see here) that signal a potential employee on top of their game and one who is barely scraping by, but there are also ways you can make your own use of email more efficient. These tips can streamline your own use of email, and can help you avoid an awkward situations where you lose a job offer or send the wrong signal to a colleague.
1. Institute a Zero-Unread Policy
A zero-unread policy is exactly what it sounds like: a policy of having zero unread emails in your inbox. This not only is good housekeeping, but helps you internalize the need to respond quickly to important emails and prevents the buildup of spam and unimportant emails. If you use Gmail (which, for a personal account, you should), this makes it so that when an email does come in, it is clear you have to check your inbox, as the “Inbox” tab turns into the “(1) Inbox” tab, a much more noticeable signal than the difference between “(2534647) Inbox” and “(2534648) Inbox.”
Instituting a zero-unread policy doesn’t mean you have to go through your entire inbox and click “Select All” for every single page of emails in your Gmail box. There is an easy way to mark all old emails as read.
- Type “is:unread” in your Gmail search box.
- Click “Select > All”
- You should get a notification that says something like, “All 20 conversations on this page are selected. Select all conversations that match this search” Click that link.
- Click “More > Mark as read”
- Select OK in the popup box.
- All of your unread emails should now be marked as read.
2. Institute a Zero-Inbox Policy
A zero-inbox policy is a more radical version of the the zero-unread policy, and is, once again, exactly what it sounds like. This time, rather than selecting all unread emails, you can archive all your read emails, to once again help improve workflow. Archiving emails removes them from your Gmail inbox, but saves them to be accessed via search if you need information in them.
To institute a zero-inbox policy, follow the steps above in 1, but select the “Archive” button (next to the “Select” and “Report as Spam” button).
3. Organize Your Inbox
Maybe a zero-inbox policy is too radical for you. Perhaps you like the aesthetic of having your recently read emails in front of you. That’s okay, but it is still a good idea to organize your inbox so that you aren’t overwhelmed with read or useless emails. If you use Apple Mail, you can set up Smart Inboxes, which automatically sort mail from specific senders, with specific info in the body of the email, or with certain subject lines.
If you use Gmail, you can configure your inbox to display several different tabs and automatically sort mail into a “Primary” tab (personal mail to you and friends), a “Social” tab (mail from social media sites), an “Updates” tab (mail from mailing lists for which you’ve signed up), a “Promotions” tab (offers from mailing lists), and a “Forums” tab (conversations between you and several other people). This can be particularly useful if you have signed up for several mailing lists, don’t necessarily read all of what is sent your way, but want to remain on the lists. To configure tabs in Gmail, click the “Settings” button on the far right side of the page and scroll down to “Configure Inbox.” From here, you can choose which tabs you’d like to display.
Another option is to divide your inbox into read and unread emails. This way, all of your read emails are still displayed, but are sorted separately from your unread emails. To enable this function, click on the “Settings” button, scroll down to “Settings” and then over to “Inbox.” From this page, select the drop-down menu next to “Inbox Type” and select “Unread First” (or your preference).
4. Sync Your Personal and Professional Email With Your Phone
In the age of omnipresent cell phones, there is no real excuse for an aspiring young professional to not have email access on her cell phone. If your excuse is that you don’t want to be overwhelmed by useless emails, that’s only an excuse to not have push notifications turned on for emails — not an excuse to avoid emails on your phone outright.
There are plenty of email apps out there for both Android phones and iPhones, and it is simple to set up for either Android (example here) or iPhone (example here), though Gmail is available as an app on both operating systems if you are using an @gmail.com account.
5. Learn How to Use Vacation Responder
If you absolutely, positively have to go without checking your email for several days, you should notify your colleagues and employer, as well as set up a system so that those trying to contact you don’t think you’re ignoring them. A perceived-cold shoulder can do as much to turn off a professional advancement as an actual cold shoulder with many employers.
In Gmail, the Vacation Responder is found under “Settings > Settings > General” and is at the bottom (click here to learn how to use this setting in Apple Mail). It sends an automatic email during a given window to anybody who emails you, telling them you are away from your email.
This may seem like overkill for a personal email account, but should be seriously considered if you are expecting any professional emails during the window in which you are gone. Otherwise, check your phone.