Remember when email was exciting?
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when instantly sending someone a digital letter was magical. For those of us old enough to recall long distance phone calls, pen pals and hand written letters, email changed everything. Now it’s a necessary evil that makes life more complicated than we’d like.
Based upon my unscientific research, your inbox is probably overflowing. I conducted a random survey among friends on Facebook, asking how many emails they currently have in their inbox. 55 people responded, and the results proved my suspicions. The average number of emails sitting in their inboxes was 2,737. I’m stressed just thinking about that number.
No matter how big your pile may be, email has the tendency to control your work schedule and dominate your time. Things get more complicated if you’re like me, and you use your inbox as a “to-do” list. I’ve heard many productivity experts claim this is a bad idea. I disagree. Their gimmicks and strategies just add to my workload. I’m convinced that the key to productivity is reducing the complexity of your system, not increasing it.
As a result, I’ve developed some specific strategies that serve to ensure you’ll win the ongoing battle with your inbox:
Got an overstuffed inbox? Clear it out immediately in one sweep. The first step in conquering your inbox is clearing it out. That’s a daunting task if you’ve got hundreds (or thousands) of emails just sitting there. Make it easy on yourself. Highlight everything, and move it all into a generic archive folder. If something in that pile was really important, the sender will email you again. Clear out your whole inbox and start a new system now.
Create a simple, limited folder system. At one point, I was drowning in my own folders. I created dozens of them to archive emails I wanted to save. But I consistently struggled to find messages and wasted time deciding where to put them. Various experts recommend a specific small number of folders to increase your efficiency. I know a guy who only has one folder labeled “Archive”, and he puts everything in it. I’m not that intense. My take is that there isn’t a magic number. Just use as few as possible so you can quickly archive and locate emails. Then, use the search function in your email software to locate what you need.
Download desktop and mobile email scheduling software. The cornerstone of my productivity strategy is utilizing software that allows you to take an email out of your inbox, and have it return automatically as a new message when you need it later. As I’ve written before, my favorite desktop version is called Boomerang. This plug-in for Outlook and Gmail is incredible. The developers of the software have a ton of information on their website, but it’s a really simple concept. Rather than ask you to reject the idea of using your inbox as a “to-do” list, Boomerang embraces the concept and makes it work. After right-clicking on a message, you can schedule the email to return to your inbox as a new message on a date and time of your choosing. That simple concept completely rocked my email world. When I’m not at my desk, I use Microsoft’s free Outlook app (for both iPhone and Android) for all of my emailing. Their calendar interface is fantastic, and they have a number of other excellent features. But most importantly, this app provides the same scheduling functionality offered by Boomerang’s desktop plugin. Pairing these two key pieces of software, I’m able to completely clear out my inbox every day.
Unsubscribe from email lists. You haven’t done it yet, because you feel guilty. That trade publication or professional organization sending daily emails feels good in your inbox. But you never read them! Get over the guilt, and unsubscribe. Don’t waste your precious time deleting emails you volunteered to receive, but never read.
Protect your professional inbox. Unfortunately, many organizations require you to give them your email address as a condition of service. The worst possible thing you could do is divulge your professional email address to them. Unwanted solicitations will clog your inbox, reduce your productivity and increase your stress. If you haven’t done so already, set-up an email address solely dedicated to receiving emails you don’t want. That will enable you to protect your professional account from unwanted junk.
Not every email requires a response. Do you really need to take the time to move your cursor, hit reply, type “Thanks!”, and hit send? Not usually. The simple truth is that you don’t need to respond to every email. Embrace the idea that conversations and emails have different rules. Whenever you can delete an email without replying, do it. The small savings in time will add up over days, weeks and months.
Set aside specific windows of time to check email. Don’t get trapped in the vortex of constant access. New email notifications are like giant magnets pulling your attention away from tasks. The best way to avoid the constant pull of email is to set aside time in your schedule every day to plow through email. But don’t make this a loose commitment. Deliberately block time in your calendar. This will keep you on task, and prevent your schedule from being consumed by meetings.
Boldly use automatic replies. If you’re going on vacation, don’t leave any hint that you’ll check email when you’re gone. Make it blatantly clear that you’re out of the office, and will not be checking email until you return. I’ve seen some take this strategy up a notch. Their auto-reply says that they’re on vacation, and will delete everything in their inbox when they’re back. If something is urgent, email them again later. However you decide to apply this, you’ll notice a dramatic reduction in email while you’re out of the office. If people know they can’t reach you, they’ll leave you alone.
Turn-off mobile notifications. I admit it. This is probably the hardest thing to do. There’s a part of me that actually enjoys seeing new emails arrive. Unfortunately, constant notifications make it difficult to stay focused on one task. If you’re getting sound or vibration notifications on your phone every time an email arrives, stop it. Immediately. Then consider removing all other layers of notification. This will enable you to compartmentalize your email consumption, and protect you from unnecessary distractions.
Respond, delay, archive or delete. Now that you’ve got the peripheral strategies in place, you’re ready to tackle the daily barrage of emails flooding your inbox. If you want to clear out your inbox on a daily basis, you must act on every message. My approach includes four simple options for every email: Respond, delay, archive or delete. If you apply one of these to every message, you’ll clear your inbox in no time. Let’s take a closer look at each:
- Respond: If you can respond immediately to an email, do it. Now. Once you hit send, either delete or archive the original message to remove it from your inbox.
- Delay: Not every email requires action today. Some can wait until tomorrow morning, or a few weeks from now. As I mentioned before, Boomerang and Microsoft Outlook’s mobile app offer a powerful way to deal with this reality. Both allow you to schedule an email to come back into your inbox as a new message at a date/time of your choosing.
- Archive: Done with an email, but afraid to delete it? Perhaps there’s some important information you don’t want to lose? Utilizing the limited folder system described above, you can quickly and easily archive emails that you need to save.
- Delete: The quickest way to act on an email is to delete it. Don’t waste your time archiving multiple exchanges from one email thread. Keep the most recent one, and delete the others. Get used to moving your finger to the “delete” key, and use it as often as possible.
Want more time in your schedule? Looking to get more engaged in social media? The first step toward gaining control of your schedule is conquering your inbox. Hopefully, my strategies will help you win the email wars.