Practical tips on reading and composing email

This post is the first in the series on practical application of automation to email (Rule 4 of the Five Email Rules). Though I use Apple Mail app, similar tools are available in other fine mail programs such as Gmail (see Gmail keyboard shortcuts). Since working with email is such a large topic, I break it into three parts:

  • communicating (reading and composing email), which is covered in this post;
  • organizing (archiving, sorting and storing email and attachments);
  • acting (linking email with calendars, task management systems, notes, reading lists, etc.).

Let’s start with reading email. First, I do not read all email, especially not at once. A lot of it is deleted immediately and a considerable part is archived without reading ‘just in case’. In order to identify primary candidates for deleting and archiving I use an Inbox Rule (go to Preferences-Rules in Mail App) which colors messages from specific recipients in grey. My eyes are trained to skip such emails during ‘emergency scanning’ and when I deal with email I usually archive/delete these ‘grey’ messages within seconds. Other email which should not be read at once are longer messages such as important newsletters or articles shared by colleagues. These are quickly sent to my reading lists (as I will describe in the post on Acting).

The second trick is to process email by a conversation thread. Sometimes there are several messages on one topic (e.g. people replying to each other). You would ideally see all of them before deciding what to do with the message. Gmail (as well as Mail on iPod and iPad) conveniently displays all emails related to a conversation together. The next version of Apple Mail (coming with Lion OS) promises to do the same. But even the present version allows to read a conversation tread really easily. When you point to a message, all other messages belonging to the same conversation are highlighted with light grey color. By pressing Alt-↑ or Alt-↓ you jump between these messages. Once you have read a conversation thread and want to archive, delete or clip it you canselect all messages belonging to the same conversation by pressing Shift-Cmd-K.

Let’s move onto composing emails. Very useful keyboard shortcuts are Cmd-N (for starting a new message), Shift-Cmd-R (Reply All) and Cmd-R (Reply) as well as Shift-Cmd-F (Forward). When writing I extensively use TextExpander, primarily for various customized signatures and closing lines (e.g. “With best wishes, Aleh”) but also for my phone number, address and other standard pieces of text.

The shortcut to attach files to messages is Shift-Cmd-A. (File attachments are covered in a separate post as a lot of time and energy can be wasted if this is not done right.) When you finished composing use Shift-Cmd-D to send.

Finally, it helps to learn how to send information by email without opening the Mail app. This is important because very often just looking at your inbox can be very disruptive to the work flow. Here are a couple of tips. First, some applications allow you to send emails without leaving their interface. For example, if you are browsing the Internet using Google Chrome, pressing Shift-Cmd-I will create an email with the URL of the page you are currently reading. It’s a great way to send links to interesting pages. Yes, I know, that most websites nowadays incorporate a special function by which you can share their URLs over email. However, such method is much more disruptive: you have to use your mouse to activate this function and then typically enter your own name, email and whether you want to receive announcements from them. Moreover, your recipient is likely to get not only the link you are sharing but also some additional information (such as advertisement) which the website decides to include.

A great universal method of sending any information by email on the fly is by using LaunchBar. If you are in the middle of something and suddenly want to send a short (!) email, you don’t need to open your Mail program (and get distracted, frustrated or excited by what you see in your Inbox). It is sufficient to press the LaunchBar activation key (I use Ctrl-Space) and start typing the first letters of the name or the initials of your recipient. LaunchBar will display their name in a splitsecond and after you press Enter a new email message will be created for you.

If you want to send a piece of text (e.g. from your Web browser or text editor) you can also use LaunchBar. By highlighting any text and holding down your LaunchBar activation key you invoke the so called Instant Send function. Once it’s activated you can just type the name of your recipient and press Enter. The LaunchBar will create an email message addressed to this person (or a group) and containing the selected text as a body. All you have to do is to fill in the subject and press Shift-Cmd-D to send. You’ve just sent a piece of text without touching your mouse or leaving the application you’re working in!

A similar method can be used for sending documents, pictures and other files without opening Mail. I discuss several ways for doing this in the next post which deals with file attachments.

About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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1 Response to Practical tips on reading and composing email

  1. Pingback: Email wrap-up: habits, techniques and etiquette | Academic workflows on Mac

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