The ultimate guide to becoming an email ninja

I don’t have to sell you on “taking control of your email.” You’re reading this post because you want to be better at email.

I’m great at managing email. I have to be — I get hundreds of important emails a day.

Busy, smart, organized people have taught me valuable tips & tricks, organization techniques, email sending protocol, and daily behaviors to turn me into a sword-wielding, nunchuck-swinging, email-chopping ninja. Here’s how you can become one too:

TOOLS & TRICKS

The first step to round-house kicking your email is to set yourself up with the best tools available.

Use Gmail

This is, as any ninja would say, “numero uno.” You can’t do much of what I’ve recommended below without Gmail.

On your phone, use the standard Gmail app which does most things very well.

Note: I’ve used all the mainstream mail clients: Hotmail / Live Mail, Yahoo, Outlook, Thunderbird, Windows 10 Mail. Google also makes a product called Inbox, which is great for personal emails but terrible for work. Gmail has the most integrations and a few critical customizations, which makes it my top choice.

Install Boomerang!

One of my favorite companies, Baydin, makes a popular tool called Boomerang which enables 2 key features:

  • Return to inbox: When I send email, I have the option to return the email into my inbox at any date/time. If I think someone is unlikely to respond to my email, I can choose to only return the email if that person doesn’t respond. Getting in the habit of returning emails to my inbox has been critical in ensuring I don’t drop the ball on important projects or communication.
  • Send later: This feature lets you schedule an email to be sent in the future. I sometimes schedule emails that I know I’ll need to send in the future, like asking people to send agenda items for a scheduled meeting, anniversaries, etc. Sometimes people on my team schedule emails to arrive in my inbox at 4:30am to make me think they’re working early (but I know this trick, ninjas!)

Use priority inbox + drafts

Gmail gives me several ways to organize my inbox, but as an email ninja, I use the Priority (“ninjatō”) Inbox.

Here’s what my email inbox looked like toward the end of the day on Nov. 18. Notice I’m using Priority Inbox (how to enable this?) with 3 buckets: my important emails at the top, then email drafts that I haven’t sent, and finally low priority emails at the bottom.

Gmail learns over time, and eventually gets really good at automatically sorting my email into “Important” emails at the top and “Everything else” at the bottom. When I log into my email, I take care of the Important bucket first.

But here’s the real katana in the rough: all unsent drafts appear right there in the middle of my inbox. No more “sorry I never pressed ‘send’ on this draft” excuse!

Use keyboard shortcuts

Email ninjas don’t always check their inbox, but when they do, they use keyboard shortcuts (make sure they’re turned on).

Here are a few I use constantly:

  • r — Reply
  • a — Reply All
  • f — Forward
  • e — Archive the current email
  • l — Label this email
  • g then i — Go to inbox
  • c — Compose new email
  • TAB then SPACE BAR — Sends current email after composing
  • ! — Mark this email as spam
  • # — Delete this email
  • m — Mute this email chain. I don’t need to read it
  • / — Search

Find many more keyboard shortcuts here.

Use Rapportive

Note: After LinkedIn bought Rapportive, they karate chopped the FireFox plugin, so this is only available in the Google Chrome browser.

Rapportive shows me LinkedIn information about people in the current email chain, including their last few jobs titles and whether or not I’m already connected to them.

This is great for network building or quickly understanding who’s on the email chain before I respond.

Disable “you’ve got mail!” alerts

When a ninja is deep into her training, she doesn’t allow herself to be distracted by the mice crawling across the tatami. That’s why we always disable desktop notifications.

I’ll check my email when I’m ready for it, and I won’t be distracted by 40 notifications per hour that new mail has arrived.

Search is your friend

Search is fast and powerful in Gmail. Using a combination of the following search terms, I can generally find any email I want within 10 seconds.

  • to:name@company.com — finds all emails sent to name@
  • from:name@company.com — finds all emails from name@
  • subject:example — finds emails with “example” in the subject
  • has:attachment — finds all emails with an attachment
  • is:starred — finds all emails that are starred
  • before:2016/11/21 — finds all emails sent before Nov 21, 2016
  • after:2016/01/01 — finds all emails sent after Jan 1, 2016
  • -example — removes all emails containing the word “example”

So a typical search from me would be:

from:myemail@usertesting.com to:vpofmarketing@usertesting.com has:attachment subject:strategy -offsite

This search query will find all emails from me, to our VP of Marketing, with an attachment and a subject line that contains the word “strategy”, but the email body can’t contain the word “offsite.” Boom! 4 results found, and only 1 from the last 6 months.

ORGANIZATION

Now that our tools are set up, we need to organize ourselves. When the email attack begins, I need to know where my ninja stars are stored.

Use labels freely

Labels are a way to tag emails and organize them. Think of labels like folders, with the following differences:

  • Each email can have multiple labels
  • Emails can be archived without assigning a label

I use labels as often as possible, usually to organize emails that are similar in some way. For example, emails sent to email groups, weekly and monthly reports, alerts from my calendar, electronic receipts for reimbursement, newsletters, etc.

I’ve seen other creative ways to use labels including:

  • One label per day of week — Set up labels for Mon, Tues, Wed, Thu, Fri. As emails come into the inbox each day, either take action on them now or tag them with the day of the week that you plan to work on them. So, for example, on Thursday, first tackle all of the emails that have the “Thu” label from the past week.
  • Reference — Use this label for any email that has information to reference in the future.
  • Dependency — Use this label to tag projects that are ‘stuck’ because of dependency on someone else. Monitor these emails daily and make sure they aren’t stuck for too long.

You decide what workflow works best for you, but take advantage of labels to organize your email as it arrives into your inbox.

Gorge yourself with filters

About ½ of the emails I receive do not need to go to my inbox. Examples are emails to groups, daily newsletters, alerts, reports, etc. These emails are not urgent, so I get them out of my inbox. A shortcut to remember is this: if I receive a routine email that does NOT require a response, it should skip my inbox completely.

I currently have 44 active filters that label and auto-archive emails that I don’t need to read immediately. (How to use filters?)

But wait, what if I still want to read those emails!? No problem, I schedule time in my day/week to scan through the emails that have been auto-archived. When that calendar appointment pops up, I can choose how much time I want to spend reading reports, catching up on TechCrunch articles or investigating the latest presidential cabinet seat nomination.

Create multiple email addresses

I use 10 different email addresses to help me route my mail appropriately. Since Gmail allows me to apply filters and labels based on who an email was sent TO, it allows me to automatically sort emails by category.

Here are 5 examples that will apply to most people:

  1. Work email address — For communication to and from co-workers (e.g. chris@companyname.com).
  2. Personal email — For communication with friends and family (e.g. chris@gmail.com)
  3. Important accounts email — To create my most important accounts (banking, financial services, insurance, etc). These companies rarely email me, but when they do, I need to read it. (e.g. chris+banking@gmail.com)
  4. E-commerce email — To create accounts where I buy stuff. It doesn’t matter how many times I unsubscribe, this email account will get blasted with email offers. I use email filters to get these emails out of my inbox ASAP. (e.g. chris+shopping@gmail.com)
  5. Newsletter email — To sign up for newsletters. Eventually I find myself being overwhelmed with content flowing into my inbox. Again, I use email filters to get these emails out of my inbox, and I can scan the newsletters when my time opens up. (e.g. chris+news@gmail.com)

So for example, all emails sent to chris+news@gmail.com are labeled with “News” and then are automatically removed from my inbox. Emails sent to chris@gmail.com are from my family and friends so I automatically label them with “Family & Friends” and change the color of the label so it’s easy see them.

How to manage Gmail aliases?

Make Calendar work for you

Google Calendar allows you to add different calendars for different purposes. For example, you might have one calendar for your work meetings, a family calendar that you share with your spouse/kids, a calendar for birthdays and anniversaries, etc. Here’s how to create new calendars.

Having different calendars allows you to make types of events a different color (so they’re easy to see), but also lets you set different notification settings for each calendar. For example, your “Meetings” calendar appointments might notify you 15 minutes before the appointment starts but the “Birthdays” calendar might notify you 7 days ahead of time (so you remember to buy a gift).

My “Meetings” calendar is where I schedule all meetings including calls, interviews, 1:1 checkins, etc. That calendar sends me email notices 10 min before the next meeting starts, and I use Gmail filters to automatically label those notification emails with a bright color.

This is helpful for a few reasons:

  • When I’m in the middle of doing emails, it’s helpful to get a reminder that a meeting is coming up so I’m not late.
  • After the meeting is over, I often have a follow up that I need to do. For example, after an interview I need to write up my notes and put them into our ATS. My meeting notification email reminds me later in the day to do the follow up.

EMAIL PROTOCOL RULES

Rule 1: Address emails to only 1 person

Emails that aren’t addressed “to” a single person suffer from the ninja bystander effect. Everyone waits for everyone else to respond, and as a result, no one responds. Drives me nuts. So the body of every email should start with the name of the person who is expected to respond.

In the rare case that I must address many people, I tell them why they need to read at the top of the email.

When I’m being really efficient, I also start the body of the email alerting people why they’re being CC’d.

Here’s what a great email opener looks like:

TO: George
CC: Tina, Stephanie
Hi George,
[Tina, Stephanie copied FYI only]
We need to sit down and discuss our CAC thresholds for the campaign that launches next week.

Rule 2: Don’t “Reply All”

I do my best to avoid “Reply All.” It’s rare that everyone on the email chain needs to read my response, and it’s just creating more email clutter for everyone else.

If I must reply all, I follow rule #1.

Rule 3: Avoid emailing groups

Similar to rule 2, I avoid sending to group emails. As our organization has grown, it’s become incredibly expensive to contact everyone at the company. Consider this calculation for every email you send to everyone@yourcompany.com:

# of employees x 3 min to read x avg fully loaded hourly salary / 60 minutes

That means each email is costing the company thousands of dollars. Remember that next time you want to email a group, or the company!

DAILY BEHAVIORS

Archive aggressively

I attempt to get my inbox down to 0 emails every day. Every email left in my inbox at the end of the day is like an enemy soldier that I’ve spared. How many do I really want to leave around?

This is the most important behavior. I’ve never met someone who leaves emails in their inbox and is “great” at email management and responsiveness.

Realistically I never get to 0, but I’m pretty good at getting down to 5 or less every day.

Where do all the emails go? They’re archived out of my inbox. Next I’ll give you some strategies to get as close to 0 as possible.

Act on every email immediately

I’ve trained myself to act immediately when an email comes in as follows:

  • Respond within 3 minutes — I only respond if I can draft a response in 3 minutes. Otherwise I must do one of the following…
  • Add it to task list — If it will take more than 3 minutes to respond, I put it on a task list (Excel, Wunderlist, Evernote, Asana, Google Tasks…) to do later. Then I can prioritize all of my tasks in 1 place. Of course, I then archive the email.
  • Delay it (a la boomerang) — If I will want to read the email again in the future, I use boomerang to get it out of the inbox to be returned at a later date.
  • Delegate it — Do I really need to do this, or can I delegate it to a better person?
  • Archive it — My personal favorite! Just get the email out of the inbox. I can always search for the email later if I need it.
  • Delete it or Spam. These are emails that I don’t need to see again the future. I’m very aggressive on marking emails as spam, which has dramatically reduced my spam load over time.

Use phone regularly

The Gmail app on my phone is a great compliment to my computer email. I use my phone daily to:

  • Scan for important or urgent email — This takes 10–15 seconds several times throughout the day.
  • Quickly reply to emails — It’s a waste of time to draft long emails on my phone, so I keep replies to a single line (or just a few words). I then archive the email out of the inbox!
  • Start drafts — This is my favorite use of the phone. When something comes up during the day, I’ll start a draft with the subject line filled in. That draft will appear in my inbox later that day and remind me to take action.

Each phone email session should be no more than few minutes.

Schedule email time

I schedule time in my day to read email! Otherwise I’ll pack my day full of meetings with no breaks, and I’ll end up having to do email early in the morning or late at night. I treat “email reading” like a meeting and make time for it during the day.

Move the ‘introducer’ to BCC

When introducing people to each other or when scheduling a meeting, move as many people off the email chain as possible. Introductions and scheduling meetings often require many back and forths, so spare the inbox of people that don’t need to read and get them into the BCC line.

If more than 2 back and forths, pick up the phone

When I’ve gone back and forth with someone on a topic more than 2 times, I take the conversation off email because it will just result in 10 more emails.

I pick up the phone, walk over to the person’s desk, or add the topic to my next check in with that person. The result is I save my inbox from hundreds of future email exchanges and time wasted.

BONUS

Use MightyText to receive text messages

MightyText is a Gmail plugin and mobile app that routes my phone’s text messages into my Gmail window. I can both send and receive text messages directly from Gmail.

Enable ‘Google Voice’ lab

I’ve set up my phone so that voicemails for my main phone number and my Google Voice number are routed into the Google Voice app. When I receive a voicemail, it’s accompanied by an email — in that email I can play back the message from Gmail.

How to find Gmail labs.

Enable ‘Undo Send’ lab

I probably use this twice a day. After enabling this lab, I have 30 seconds after sending an email to “undo” the send and return it to my inbox. When I press send on accident or remember something I’d like to add to my email, it’s great to have the undo option.

How to find Gmail labs.

Enable ‘Send & Archive’ lab

The send and archive lab does exactly what it says. Instead of sending an email, I get a new button that looks like this:

Pressing this button will send the email, archive it, and send me back to my inbox. Saves me an extra click on every email I send!

How to find Gmail labs.

Email after vacations

I’ve taken a rare week-long break from my ninja duties. Before leaving my inbox was down to 3 emails, but upon return to the office my inbox has been bombed by thousands of emails. My first instinct is to commit seppuku — but I consider this alternative first:

  • I take 90 minutes to scan all of my emails for important information
  • I respond to no more than 10 emails. Every email I send will get a response, so instead I opt for calling people or walking over to their desk.
  • I select all emails in my inbox
  • I click “archive”

If I’ve missed something really important, people will bring it up with me again.

SUMMARY

If you feel like there are too many suggestions in this article and don’t know what to do first, let me give you some guidance. If you could walk away with just 2 things from this whole list you should:

  1. Install Boomerang
  2. Get to a 0-email inbox at the end of every day

These 2 tips will transform the way you do email and make you significantly more responsive, organized, and they will alleviate the feeling that you’re being overwhelmed by email.

And if you have any tips or tricks that I’ve missed, please post them below!