Ten tools to help you spend less time on email

© Webaroo via Unsplash   That red dot is the enemy. Crush it.

By David Nield, Popular Science

Emailing isn’t something you can easily get away from if you want to take part in 21st century life. But you definitely don’t want to spend too much time managing your inbox—there are far better and exciting ways to pass your time.

If you dig a little deeper into that email app of yours, you'll discover quite a few features for streamlining your workflow, so you can spend less time sending and receiving messages and more time living your life.

Some of these features may not be available in every email app out there, but most of them are—though with different names and paths. We've included one example for each to make sure you find something new.

1. Email templates

If there’s a particular email you send a lot (like “Thank you for the job application" or “Sorry I was so late for our meeting this morning"), just set up a template for it. That way, you can load it up and tweak it where necessary (names, specific events, etc.) rather than starting from scratch every time.

Gmail features this function and it’s easy to use, but you’ll have to enable it first. To do so, click on the gear icon on the top right of your inbox, go to Settings, and then Advanced. Scroll down the list to find Templates, which will be disabled by default. Click on Enable, scroll down to the bottom of the menu, and click on Save changes. The Gmail tab will refresh so you can use the tool.

© David Nield   Using an automatic response is like having a virtual assistant. You just have to be creative and give it the right instructions.

When you’re composing an email, you can make a template by clicking the three dots on the bottom right of the message and choosing Templates. If you’ve been working on an email you want to use again, pick Save draft as template to have it available for later. When you’re ready, choose a relevant template from the Insert Template list behind the three dots on the bottom right of your draft to load one up you’ve already saved.

2. Automatic responses

Most email apps come with some kind of “out of office” auto response you can set up for when you’re away on vacation. But there are some other cool uses for this feature, too. Maybe you’re switching to a new email address, retiring, or spending the day out of the office somewhere with a spotty reception. This tool can be deployed anytime you need to put your inbox on pause, or to send the same message automatically to a lot of people at once.

© David Nield   You don't need all your subscription platforms' newsletters to invade your inbox, but if you still want to keep them, archiving is the way to go.

Apple Mail on macOS handles this well: go to Mail, Preferences, Rules, and then Add Rule to get started. First, you’ll have to set the criteria that triggers the auto response. It can be anything—from simply getting any message, to getting only messages from a particular recipient or that include certain words in the title. To finish, pick Reply to Message as the resulting action, and compose your text.

3. Combined inboxes

Most email apps are able to manage more than one email address at once, which means you won’t have to jump between apps (or even computers) to check your messages. The best part is that adding new email accounts is usually pretty straightforward.

© David Nield   Clicking on each message to see what it is about? No. Previewing is way faster.

The Mail app that comes as part of Windows 10 does it—just click on the cog icon (bottom left), go to Manage accounts, and then Add account to add a new email account.

4. Email aliases

Many email providers now let you set up email aliases—alternative email addresses that are still managed through your main account. You could set one up solely for email newsletters to protect your privacy, or one that only your family knows about.

This comes in handy because it means you can filter messages more efficiently—emails sent to your “newsletter” address can be automatically moved to a dedicated folder so they don’t clog your main inbox, for example, while those sent to your “family” address can be automatically starred and given a higher priority (or not).

If you’re using iCloud on the web, you can manage your email aliases by clicking the cog icon (bottom left), then choosing Preferences and Accounts. Apple lets you have up to three aliases for each iCloud address.

5. Archive emails

Filtering messages as they come in is one of the most effective ways to reduce the time you spend looking at your emails. One of the best filters to set up is one that automatically archives less-important messages or marks them as read—what qualifies as “less important” is up to you.

Several email apps can now do this, so see what you can find in your platform of choice. In Outlook on the web, for example, you can click the cog icon (top right), then go to View all Outlook settings, Email, and Rules. There, select Add new rule, choose the criteria you want to use, and pick Mark as read as the action.

6. Smarter replies

Smart replies use machine learning to suggest quick responses to incoming messages based on the text in them, and can even evolve to more naturally match your writing style. They’re one of the quickest ways to power through your inbox, but you’ll only find them in Gmail for now.

Smart reply can be enabled and disabled from the Gmail settings screen, whether you’re on the web, Android, or iOS. When activated, Gmail will recognize if a short reply is appropriate and offer you three quick responses underneath the message. To use them, click on the one you like best and it’ll appear in the message body, where you can either tweak it or send it as-is.

7. Smarter emails

If you want to go one step further, you can use Smart Compose to get Gmail’s help with writing your entire email. As with Smart Reply, it uses artificial intelligence, and suggests what you might want to say next in a sentence based on training models of human language.

You’ll find the toggle switch for enabling or disabling Smart Compose in Gmail settings, whether you’re on the web, Android, or iOS. If it’s enabled, you’ll see suggestions in gray as you type. Press Tab (on the web) or swipe across (on mobile) to accept a suggestion.

8. Email previews

You’d be surprised at how much faster you can get through your emailing chores just by tweaking the layout of your favorite email app. In particular, having emails previewed on-screen as soon as you select them can save you several extra clicks a day.

Most desktop and web clients let you see email previews alongside your list of messages. In the case of Yahoo Mail on the web, click Settings, More settings, and Personalize inbox. There, you can turn on the Message preview toggle switch and choose how you want emails to be displayed.

9. Swipe gestures

If you’re using an email app on your phone, try swiping across messages from the left or the right—most apps let you do this to quickly deal with large numbers of messages. You can also usually customize what the swipes do, with options usually being to archive, delete, or mark as read.

You can do this on Gmail’s mobile platform by tapping the menu button (three lines, top left), and going to Settings and General settings. Then, go to Swipe actions to determine what you want to do each time you swipe. The options range from snoozing emails to deleting them.

10. Email signatures

Whether you're already accustomed to using email signatures or not, they can help you spend less time emailing. You can use them to automatically tell your contacts about the hours you’ll be available, or warn them you're on a mobile device and can't compose a lengthy message.

In other words, signatures can give those people you correspond with any kind of useful information that you would otherwise have to type out each time. Most email apps support signatures—to set one on Apple Mail on iOS, for example, choose Mail, then Signature from the iOS Settings screen.


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Unplugged Magazine: Ten tools to help you spend less time on email
Ten tools to help you spend less time on email
Unplugged Magazine
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