How I Email: Jenni Maier, Editor-in-Chief, The Muse

Email is a non-negotiable part of everyday life. For some, it’s an unruly time suck, but enlightened email users have systems to ensure they’re not a slave to the inbox. We’re asking smart thinkers to give us a peek inside their inboxes, share tips, ideas, gripes, and everything in between.

Jenni Maier is the top editor at The Muse where she’s written about why she sometimes doesn’t listen in meetings and the reasons why your email didn’t get a response. She’s written 2,000+ articles that have appeared in TIME, Fast Company, Inc., and other outlets. We talked about her obsession with Gmail filters and exacting subject lines.

You’re a self-proclaimed organization junkie. Are there any apps or tools that you rely on to get your inbox organized?

I don’t actually use a lot of apps and plugins on my Gmail, with the exception of Boomerang, which is the same as the snooze feature in the new Gmail. But I love the star feature. I use it to identify what’s important and I use a different color star depending on how important it is.

I star anything that needs a response. And every day, at the end of the day, I go into my stars folder and see what needs a response before I leave. I use yellow for anything that needs a response. I use blue for anything that will need a response but not for a week or so, or if I need to come back to something. For example, if there are several people CC’d on the email, I can’t respond until someone else responds.

I also have certain subject lines get immediately starred through a filter. So for example, anything that uses the subject line, “Article Draft,” is automatically starred. I usually turn those around usually within 24 hours. I highly recommend filtering.

What does your daily email routine look like?

I check my email two times a day for the most part.

All right, I guess it’s more than that. I have my inbox open, but I only let myself respond to emails two times a day. So I do it at 10:30 every morning. I go through and I actually block out a half an hour on my calendar just to through emails and answer them. Then I either answer them in the moment, or I star them, or I file them. And at the end of the day, around 5:30 to 6:30, I do the same exact thing again.

I’m most productive in the morning, so I like to save my email for the night because going through the inbox is easy. My Gmail is open throughout the day to answer anything urgent, but it’s so rare to see urgent things. I find that if you’re constantly looking through your inbox, like all the studies say, it keeps you off-track. So I really try to block out time, literally, on my calendar, about an hour a day, to go through my email.

I’m open with my team about what my email process looks like. I tell people, “I am not checking my inbox until 10:30 in the morning,” and they seem to get into that mindset that I won’t be on email otherwise. I think setting expectations for when I’m going to get back to people has been really helpful.

Why are super-specific subject lines a good idea?

I’m obsessed with subject lines. I try to give super clear subject lines in my own emails. If something is urgent, I put in brackets, “Urgent,” or, “Need response today,” or, “For your thoughts,” or, “For your information” — to let people know what the status is right up front.

When people email me with vague subject lines, I’ll change the subject line. I usually will add it after the RE. Otherwise, things get lost so easily and you can’t find things. This is one of my top tips for people.

Any other specific things you do to make email easier?

I’m working hard on not saying, “We,” in emails, like, “We should do this.” Instead I’ll say something like, “Can you do this?” or, “I will take care of this.” Also, if there are multiple people on the email, I bold the names after I give instructions.

That way everyone in the email knows what they’re supposed to do with it. And that’s been really helpful to ensure a quick response and to make sure you’re getting what you want. I think we’ve all been CC’d on those emails and you wonder, why am I on here?

You’ve been known to write some pretty unique out-of-office emails. What’s a good way to think about sprucing up the OOO email?

It depends on your company and protocol, but if you have a company that’s okay with you writing fun out-of-office messages, it can be a fun thing to do. First, at the very minimum, tell people what you’re doing, especially if you’re doing something exciting. If you’re out to get married, tell people that.

I think it brings this human aspect back to workplace communication which is easy to forget about when you’re rapid-fire emailing. But also, it gives people some context if you say why you’re out. People are also more likely to respond with a congratulations rather than just, “where is that report?”

I love writing my out-of-office messages. It’s one of my favorite things to do before vacation.