Email is causing too much overload. According to productivity expert Nathan Zeldes, we spend about 20 hours per week processing email. Of that, at least one third of that time is spent dealing with unimportant messages. There has to be a better way, right?
Luckily, there’s no shortage of email helpers designed to trim down how much time you spend ferreting through your inbox. They help weed out unimportant messages automatically, track who has not replied to a message, and flip email processing into more of a task-based process to save you time.
CIO.com narrowed down the choices to the best options with the most time-saving features, then tapped productivity experts to explain why the add-on is worth your time.
One of the ways we all need help with email is in managing our priorities. The truth is, not every email is a high priority – that’s not possible. Boomerang, an add-on for Gmail from Baydin has several powerful features intended to reduce clutter. You can mark an email so you remember to reply to it later. You can send an email and schedule it to send later as well. And, when you send and the recipient doesn’t respond, you can follow-up.
“Boomerang for Gmail enables people to better manage the flood of messages they receive every day,” says Alan Lepofsky, a vice president and Principal Analyst for the Future of Work at Constellation Research who studies productivity software. “By enabling the scheduling of messages to be sent at specific times you can reply to messages when it’s convenient and have Boomerang send them at the appropriate time. The reminders feature helps people stay on top of replies they are waiting for or actions they need to take.”
Normally viewed as a task management tool, Asana works as an email helper to keep you organized. The company offers a Google Chrome extension that works with Gmail (or any Web-based email program). The power comes in when you create a task based on an incoming message. You click an icon and name the task, which is added to your to-do list.
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“The email becomes an additional bit of metadata within the task management solution,” says Stowe Boyd, a Managing Director at Gigaom Research. “This all works because Gmail creates a unique URL for each email, so that later on – even if I have archived the email – the task remains linked to the email. There is a limitation here, in that the email is not sharable, so if I share or assign such a task to a coworker that colleague can't click on the link.”
SaneBox – which works with most email services like Gmail, Microsoft Exchange, and Yahoo Mail – is a well-known add-on that automatically moves unimportant emails to a SaneLater folder. A new feature called SaneNoReplies detects which messages you sent and keeps track of whether anyone has replied. You can quickly see the “no replies” in one folder. The advantage is that you can quickly (and automatically) see which emails never led to a real conversation.
“I am constantly sending out emails to clients that require some bit of information back,” says David Sparks, a lawyer and host of the Mac Power User podcast. “Before SaneNoReplies, this required an intricate system of tracking email. That old system was time consuming and often did not work. Now I just look through my SaneNoReplies box in the morning and I know exactly who hasn’t responded. This new feature is faster and more reliable than any other way I’ve tried to solve this problem in the past and makes me look like Johnny-on-the-spot to my clients.”
This user interface for Gmail makes some dramatic changes. Instead of labels you use to mark messages (which essentially puts them into a folder), you sort messages as tasks. For example, if you keep getting messages about a new IT project, you can create a column just for those tasks. You can rename an email using a task name. For example, an email with the subject “business proposal” can become a new task called “Get back to John about the proposal” in that column.
“SortD provides an alternative user experience to the standard Gmail inbox,” says Constellation Research’s Lepofsky. “Instead a single long list sorted by sender date, you can organize your messages into multiple columns, similar to TweetDeck or a Kanban task board. This multiple-column UI enables people to see more information at a glance and prioritize and take action on messages without having to scroll through multiple screens or folders.”
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With SortD, executives will have the ability to view their most important actions, grouped into lists so that they can quickly determine the best use of their time,” says Wayne Pepper, a noted productivity expert and consultant. “They are also allowed to add non-email inspired action to those lists for next actions coming out of their head or generated by paper. Another nice feature is the ability to group more than one email into a Task in SortD so that the user can see a whole group of data that they might need to inform their next action.”
Knowmail is an AI agent for Microsoft Outlook. (The company is also working on a Gmail add-on.) Its key feature is to group emails that need your attention right now or that can be dealt with later. When you see your messages, Knowmail also estimates how long it will take to process them. You can quickly prioritize messages, then select whether you want to deal with the message soon, tomorrow, or even later next week. You can also view entire threads of a conversation.
“Knowmail uses advanced algorithms to decide what is important to the user in a given situation, and displays it with elegant simplicity that makes for much faster processing,” says Zeldes. “This means you process the important messages faster and earlier, which translates to faster turnaround on the tasks and projects the messages support.”