Email. A necessary evil, when it comes to productivity and time management. When I was a new analyst starting out, it was manageable without any special tactics. But as my responsibilities expanded, and my career progressed, email became unwieldy.
I value email, for sure. It’s essential to my work. It captures and shares ideas. It coordinates calendars. I’m not down on email, full-stop. The evil of email is purely due to the increasing volume over time.
My ideal is to have “inbox zero”, meaning there is nothing waiting for me in my inbox. The problem being, it doesn’t take very long for there to be new emails waiting for me as soon as I get close to zero! But I am still able to get to zero, which is important to me because it is a signal to myself that “I got this… Everything is deleted, filed, delegated, resolved, or moved over to my task list. I’m on top of things.” My husband showed me an email on his phone, and I was shocked. He had over 10,000 emails in his inbox. That would make me cry. But people deal with email differently. Today’s post is some tips for how I keep my inbox manageable, and intended for those who would like to get a better handle on email, even if it’s getting the inbox somewhere between 0 and 10,000!
Turn off all notifications, including the “unread” count. Otherwise you’re interrupting focus on an intentional task in favor of an unintended time investment. This is a great way to procrastinate, so if that’s your goal, notify away…
Turn off the faucet. When I have a large volume to process, I usually flip my Outlook to work offline, so I can get to the bottom of the inbox without more piling in. This gives me a baseline to work toward, instead of feeling like I will not ever finish.
Don’t read the message if you don’t also plan to respond / file / delegate / put it on your task list. Think about it… You read the email, do nothing with it, then read it again, and again, and again… And all you’ve done is read the same message repeatedly. Isn’t it better to read it once then move on? This, implicitly, means you probably should not check your email between tasks, but rather treat checking your email like an intentional time-bound effort. This is very hard for most people, myself included, but it really is the best idea for effective and efficient handling of your inbox.
Schedule dedicated email time for 1-3 times per day. I think part of the reason we do the email re-read thing is we rarely actually make dedicated time for addressing email. Get in front of it.
Shut it down for the day after your final check, and don’t check before breakfast. I can’t tell you how many nights I have had unnecessarily poor sleep because I read something that revved me up just before bed (good, bad, and downright ugly emails can do this!). early morning email is a good way to rush my morning routines and compromise exercise and deliberate work. This is a big reason why I don’t use my phone as an alarm clock anymore.
4 folders are all you need. Inbox, Bacon (see below), Reviewed, and Sent. Complex filing systems are a waste of time to maintain, especially if you can categorize or tag emails. What if an email fits in two categories? If you use categories, no problem, just tag both. You run into issues that are annoying and time wasting to solve if you constrain yourself to filing emails to folders.
Use a “Bacon” folder. Most of us get email that isn’t quite “spam”, like newsletters and general company memos. We want to, and plan to, read them, but they aren’t necessarily essential to our daily workflow. Set up rules to route these bacon-like emails to your Bacon folder, and clear that one only once per day. This means the email in our inbox is a “truer” number of messages, and it isn’t as overwhelming when we sit down to process it. Thank you Michael Hyatt for this idea!
Use templates. If you look at your emailed requests, you will find you probably get the same basic 10-15 requests sent by different people. Templates can save you a ton of time in replying. Two ways to do this: one, create a message with distribution and attachments and save as a message template. Throw a shortcut on your desktop, and you’ve saved yourself weeks of typing by the end of the year! If the template is for a response without attachments (but could contain links), compose a response that is Pulitzer-worthy, then save it as a unique signature. Be sure to customize the message so you don’t sound like a robot, but save yourself re-typing the same thing. Michael Hyatt again for the signature tip… Love that blog.
Respond timely, but remember that once you do, another email is very likely headed your way. I had a manager once who sent me what felt like thousands of emails per week. Trying to be responsive I would respond back right away only to find that about 2 minutes later there was a response. Or three. Lesson? Use instant messaging for quick exchanges, or better yet, pick up the phone!
Use Quick Clicks if you are an Outlook user. Again, like templates, these are pre-programmed actions that you can configure. You can mark a message read, categorize it, open a reply window with a pre-populated message, and file the message as Reviewed in a single click. So. Much. Faster. I’m sure other programs likely have other ways to automate this. If they don’t, I’m sorry you have to miss out on this one. I love this feature so much!!
It’s a little frightening how much more I could write on this subject, but if you incorporate even a few of the above, I’m sure you will have an easier time hitting Inbox Zero. If that is, indeed, your goal. Implementing these tactics will help you free more of your valuable time, and get the most out of the necessity of email without having it bog you down.
What other tactics do you use for keeping the inbox manageable?
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