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Google bosses share golden rules of email that will banish inbox chaos forever

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Emailing in the modern era is an art form, don't you know.

There are some people who have mastered it to perfection. These are the kind of rightly smug beings who preside over a serene paradise of an inbox with exactly zero unread messages and different sections for urgent, reply later and specific project emails. These are the types to deal with emails quickly and efficiently - they decide immediately whether to reply, delete or file.

Then there are those of us who are forever engaged in a virtual (and fruitless) firefight against our ever-expanding inbox, with unread mail piling up and messages languishing for months with no reply and no clear idea on how we will action them.

Now that's a nuisance, because just like an untidy office, an out-of-control inbox can impact on our sense of concentration and focus. That chaotic mass of emails is always there, nagging at us, as we attempt to get stuck into a task or organise some other area of our lives.

Luckily for us, help is at hand. Two former high-ups from Google - executive chairman Eric Schmidt and senior vice president of products Jonathan Rosenberg - have let loose on the topic of inbox control in a new book, How Google Works. And in a recent Time magazine article, they decided to share a few of their golden nuggets for emailing like a pro.

Here's a little insight into what they have to say. Read and banish the hell that is your inbox forever more...

Email

1. Respond quickly

You know those people who can always be guaranteed to reply quickly to any email fired their way? Aim to be one of them.

"Most of the best - and busiest - people we know act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone," according to the former Google pair. "Being responsive sets up a positive communications feedback loop whereby your team and colleagues will be more likely to include you in important discussions and decisions, and being responsive to everyone reinforces the flat, meritocratic culture you are trying to establish."

This doesn't have to be an elaborate reply; just a dashed few words can confirm that you've seen the email and have registered it. A quick "got it", say the authors, is so much better than that whole "I’m overwhelmed and don’t know when or if I’ll get to your note, so if you needed my feedback you’ll just have to wait in limbo a while longer."

2. Be succinct

Crisp delivery is key if you want to create a good impression. If you can say something in 10 words, say it in 10 words - don't elaborate or waste your (and others) time with asides or confusing explanations. Be warned that cutting out words may take more thought than merely letting them lie.

"Doing this well requires more time, not less," say Eric Schmidt and co. "You have to write a draft then go through it and eliminate any words that aren’t necessary... Most emails are full of stuff that people can skip."

Email

3. Clear out your inbox constantly

This point really is key if you want to be in control of your emails - rather than letting your emails control you. Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg recommend applying the OHIO technique; Only Hold It Once. If you read the email once and know what needs doing, do it straight away. The minute you procrastinate or put it off until later, you start wasting your time because you have to re-read the whole email again at a future point.

When an email comes into your inbox you should ideally read it and respond straight away, or decide it doesn't need a response and delete. Don't spend precious minutes holding it, re-reading it, and still failing to respond (as your inbox continues to pile up).

There are a few other options. You can read an email and decide to respond later (in which case you file in a "take action" folder) or you can decide to read a longer email that is worth paying attention to later (file in a "to read" folder).

"If you do this well, then your inbox becomes a to‑do list of only the complex issues, things that require deeper thought, with a few “to read” items that you can take care of later," say the authors. "To make sure that the bloat doesn’t simply transfer from your inbox to your “take action” folder, you must clean out the action items every day. This is a good evening activity. Zero items is the goal, but anything less than five is reasonable."

Another nifty tip is to handle your email on a last in, first out order - in the hope that by the time you get to the old emails, the issue may already have been resolved.

4. Use the BCC feature with caution

When you're blind cc'ing someone, it's usually because you have some other agenda in mind and the action is indicative of non-transparent working culture, say Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. It's better therefore, to copy someone in openly or not copy them in at all. The only time the BCC feature might come in useful is when you are removing someone from a lengthy email chain because the discussion no longer applies to them.

"When you 'reply all' to a lengthy series of emails, move the people who are no longer relevant to the thread to the bcc field, and state in the text of the note that you are doing this. They will be relieved to have one less irrelevant note cluttering up their inbox," say the authors.

Email

5. Mark your emails to follow up on requests

When you're sending a request to someone to do something, copy yourself in on the request and mark it "follow up" so that you can easily chase it. This "makes it easy to find and follow up on the things that haven’t been done; just resend the original note with a new intro asking 'Is this done?'"

As you work on chasing actions and requests, remember that your role on email is also to be a router. When you receive a message with useful information, consider who else would find it useful and forward it on. If there's a problem or issue to be solved, consider who else needs to be involved in the discussion of solving it.

 "At the end of the day," say the authors, "make a mental pass through the mail you received and ask yourself, “What should I have forwarded but didn’t?”

6. Help yourself filter through emails in the future

Trying to find a message you know you have but don't know what you titled is one of the most annoying tasks of email. Save yourself a whole lot of hassle by forwarding important messages to yourself with added keywords you know you will remember them by.

"Think to yourself, How will I search for this later?" advise the Google pair. "Then, when you search for it later, you’ll probably use those same search terms. This isn’t just handy for emails, but important documents too. Jonathan [Rosenberg] scans his family’s passports, licenses, and health insurance cards and emails them to himself along with descriptive keywords. Should any of those things go missing during a trip, the copies are easy to retrieve from any browsers."

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