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Friday Tech Tips

Declutter Your Email Inbox: Tips from the Pros

By The Editors

Merlin Mann, inventor of “inbox zero,” says his philosophy for effectively managing email isn’t necessarily about a number — it’s about getting your head out of your inbox and on to other, more fruitful things. For this month’s Friday 5+ Tech Tips, we asked our tech tips dream team where they fall on inbox zero, yes or no? — and for a few quick tips on taming the daily stress bucket that is your email inbox.

Lee Rosen: Keep It Simple!

Inbox Zero? Yep, I need the box empty to feel like I’m on top of things. I know there’s lots of debate about whether it’s essential to clear out the box, but I get seriously worried about my employees when they’re not on top of email. I want to hit inbox zero twice a day and I stay out of email in between. When I go in, I go with the intention of clearing it out and I stay with it until it’s done.

Tips: We use Google Apps for Work and I use the web interface exclusively. My system is simple: (1) Delete it or do it if it’s quick, (2) forward it to Wunderlist to be done later if it’s going to require more time, or (3) archive it to Evernote for storage. I use TextExpander for canned responses, and the Delete key is my friend. Sometimes I just don’t respond. If it’s important, they’ll email me again.

Lee Rosen (@LeeRosen) practices family law in North Carolina. His blog, Divorce Discourse, is a three-time ABA Blawg 100 popular vote winner. He is a recipient of the ABA James Keane Award for Excellence in eLawyering.

Heidi Alexander: Stay Sane with Third-Party Add-ons

Inbox Zero? Yes, always! If not, you’re in trouble. 

I use Apple Mail for my email with two third-party add-ons: SaneBox and SendLaterSaneBox prioritizes important emails, provides one-click unsubscribing to unwanted emails, delays emails for later viewing, and more. SendLater allows you to schedule an email for a specific date and time so that you can delay your Saturday at 2 a.m. email to be sent on Monday morning.

Tips: If you’d like to achieve inbox zero, or at least get close, here are a couple of simple tips that apply no matter which email application you use:

  • Only check email at certain times during the day and turn off email notifications. I’m serious. You don’t need to be in email all day long. Set aside specific times for checking it. If you are awaiting an important email, then set up a notification for only that sender. 
  • Never keep more than a few unread messages in your inbox. When it’s time to check your email, check all emails and then sort them. Either delete the message, respond to it (if it takes two minutes or less), flag it for follow-up (if it requires a longer response), move it to a folder for archiving, or send it to a program like Evernote (if it is project-related).

Heidi S. Alexander (@heidialexander) is a law practice management advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (MassLOMAP), where she advises lawyers on practice management matters and in implementing new technologies.

Catherine Sanders Reach: Gone But Not Forgotten

Inbox Zero? Yes. Inbox zero is a goal for my work email, but rarely a reality for me. To echo my friend Randy Juip, “Inbox Zero is a myth, like unicorns or tasty low-fat food.” However, there is something quite satisfying about migrating or deleting as many emails as possible from my inbox. Because I believe in realistic goals, I try to get down to inbox zero at the end of every week, versus daily. Why can’t I get to zero? Because of a few random messages on esoteric topics that have no other place to go where they won’t be completely forgotten — because I refuse to create a folder called “random” or “miscellaneous” (as a librarian I just can’t do that). For these I may try FollowUpThen so that they can leave my inbox but not be entirely forgotten.

I use Microsoft Outlook for work email. If I could choose what I use, I would still choose Outlook, with the Microsoft Exchange Server at work.  I like having email, contacts, calendar and to-dos all in one interface. I also like how easy it is to set up bi-directional sync of all of that information on my mobile devices, due to the Microsoft Exchange Server. Finally, Outlook has a very robust ecosystem, and in addition to Outlook or Exchange sync for hundreds of products for business and legal, there is a world of add-ons and extensions to add functionality if necessary.

Tips: Did I mention add-ons for Outlook? My favorite is a $50 plug-in from TechHit called SimplyFile. SimplyFile is for those who have way too many nested folders. If you are guilty of this, it’s the best tool for the money. SimplyFile learns your folder system and suggests which folder an email belongs in and moves it to the appropriate folder with one click. You don’t have to scan down your long list of folders, open folders to see subfolders, or accidently drag and drop emails from your inbox into the wrong folder. You can also folder messages as you send them, with the uber cool option “Send, File, and File Original” — thus making short work of your inbox zero efforts.

Pet Peeve: If you email someone asking for some time on their calendar — whether phone call, in person, videoconference — always send some available time options when making the request. If you are in the same organization you can check their calendars for availability, but don’t assume they are available before you’ve had it confirmed. Do not make your respondents rummage in their calendar looking for an appropriate time, only to find that it won’t work for you. Once the date and time have been established, always send a calendar request to confirm, with the details filled in.

Catherine Sanders Reach (@CatherineReach) is Director, Law Practice Management and Technology, for the Chicago Bar Association. She was Director of the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center for over 10 years. Catherine currently serves on the ABA TECHSHOW board.

Deborah Savadra: Take Advantage of Quick Steps

Inbox Zero: Yes! Declutter the inbox = Declutter the mind.

Tips: If you’re not using Quick Steps in Outlook (starting in version 2010), you’re missing one of the coolest features around. Great for sending preconfigured emails (complete with addressees, Subject lines and boilerplate text), moving one or more emails to a subfolder and marking them “done,” or creating a task out of a message and moving it out of your inbox. Each Quick Step gives you one-click access to a whole series of repeatable actions you define.

Deborah Savadra (@legalofficeguru) is editor and chief blogger at Legal Office Guru, which specializes in helping legal professionals learn Microsoft Office features like Flagging Outlook E-mails for follow-up and Using Outlook Rules & Alerts

Mark Rosch: Easy Gmail Advanced Search Tactics

Inbox Zero? I use Google Gmail (in my web browser) — and my inbox is about as far from “inbox zero” as you can get. Because Gmail has such a robust Advanced Search, I don’t bother putting too many emails into folders. (Gmail calls them “labels.”)

Tips: Using those Advanced Search features, I can easily find a message I’m looking for by searching by: keywords, phrases and subject; excluding words; limiting the search results to messages I sent to a certain person or received from a certain person; adding a date range; indicating the size of the email; or limiting results to messages with attachments; among other limiters. Gmail even searches the text of email attachments — including Word, PowerPoint, Excel and PDF documents.

Like so many of its useful features, Google doesn’t make Gmail’s Advanced Search easy to find. Look for the very small, light gray down-arrow at the far right side of the Gmail search box (at the top of the inbox) and just to the left of the blue box that contains the magnifying glass icon. When you click that down arrow, an Advanced Search menu will appear.

Note: The default search is “All Mail” — which is not as inclusive as it sounds. This search does not include messages labeled as Spam or Trash. To really search all mail, click the arrows to the right of “Search,” and then select “Mail & Spam & Trash.” You can also do a more narrow search by selecting specific labels (e.g., Sent) to search only messages with that specific label.

Mark Rosch (@MarkRosch) is Vice President of Internet For Lawyers. He is co-author of “Google Gmail and Calendar in One Hour for Lawyers,” “Find Info Like a Pro,” “The Cybersleuth’s Guide to the Internet” and “Google For Lawyers.”

Nora Regis: Separate Work and Play

Inbox Zero? My approach to inbox zeroing is that it’s a noble goal, understanding I will always fall short. I try my best to achieve it for my Microsoft Outlook with Exchange work account. But I was an early adopter of Gmail as my personal email account, and when it first came out one of its biggest benefits was that it had so much storage you never had to delete an email. Gmail then released Priority Inbox, which sorts your important mail from “bacon” — those newsletters you signed up for but don’t want to read. This system has made it so I almost never delete an email from my personal Gmail account, and the important emails I need to answer are always on top.

Tips: Work email differs greatly from personal email, however. My biggest email hack is keeping my personal Gmail account separate from my work Outlook account on mobile. Even though many email apps let you host two accounts through the same app, toggling between accounts is a hassle, and having the two inboxes merge can lead to unwanted stress on the weekends or embarrassing mistakes such as attaching the wrong email signature. The easiest fix is to just have two separate apps — one for your work account and one for your personal account. I use the Mail app that comes on the iPhone and the Gmail app, but Outlook also has an app with strong reviews.

Nora Regis (@NoraRegisCBA) is Trainer & Coordinator, Law Practice Management and Technology, for the Chicago Bar Association. Nora is a former paralegal, specializing in litigation and bankruptcy. Prior to working in legal, she was a technology help desk agent at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Carole Levitt: Secret Calendar Trick

Inbox Zero? I use Google Gmail’s web interface. I do not feel compelled to have a “zero” inbox policy because I make it a habit to place any email that needs action into my calendar.

Tips: The way to add emails to your calendar is hidden. (I didn’t know about it until I wrote “Google Gmail and Calendar in One Hour for Lawyers” for the ABA several years ago.) So, here is the secret: Click the “More” tab at the top right of the email you want to move into your calendar and then click “Create Event.” For a fairly new, easy way to move an email into your calendar, look to see if the sender included a date — if you see a faint underline below the date, click on the date and you will receive an “Add to Calendar” pop-up. Once you click “Add to Calendar” you will then be offered another option, which is “Edit in Calendar.” You can then edit the Subject line, the date or the time. The full email will be attached to your calendar. Even when senders include a date in their email, I don’t always see the faint underline beneath the date, so I still have to use the older, slightly more cumbersome way to place an email into my calendar.

Carole Levitt (@CaroleLevitt) is President of Internet For Lawyers, and a frequent speaker on topics such as investigative and legal research, Google search, social media research and legal ethics. She is co-author of several books, including “The Cybersleuth’s Guide to the Internet” and “Internet Legal Research on a Budget.”

Apps and Resources Mentioned Here
Categories: Daily Dispatch, Lawyer Apps, Lawyer Productivity, Legal Technology
Originally published May 29, 2015
Last updated July 29, 2019
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