OK, truth be told, I don’t hate email. I do, however, hate that I allow email to distract me. I hate that many people do not know how to use email appropriately. I hate that I can never seem to get to the bottom of my inbox. I hate that people expect me to reply to email within minutes. I hate that I can rarely work uninterrupted. I hate that for every one email I am able to send, I seem to get three in return. I hate that I spend hours each day writing emails but can’t seem to find the time to write a blog post. And, if that’s not enough, I hate that I find myself checking email on my iPhone pretty much everywhere.
You see, email in and of itself is not the problem.
The problem is that we have become slaves to Outlook (or Apple Mail if you’re a Mac like me, or Gmail – which is a close third by now). Email is actually a great tool. It’s one of the most effective forms of marketing, it’s one of the easiest ways to stay in touch, it’s a savior when communicating complex or detailed information, it’s great for reminders, it’s fast, it’s free, and it’s, well, I could go on and on. My point here is that email has become an ever-present and necessary part of business. And, it’s not going anywhere soon. So the trick is figuring out how to leverage the strength of email as a platform without falling victim to it’s many time wasters.
Here is a list of 10 best practices that I have developed and do my best to follow:
• Touch it once. This is a hard but important point. If you can train yourself to only touch each email once you’ll cut down on nearly 50% of the time it takes to empty your inbox. The moment you read the email for the first time, make a decision about what you’re going to do with it and then…DO IT RIGHT THEN. File it, archive it, respond to it, forward it, whatever. Some emails do require a more detailed response and/or deeper reflection. In those cases flag the email for later follow-up or put it in a follow-up folder. Whatever you do, don’t keep reading the email every time you scroll past it in your inbox.
• Push delete! You don’t need to read every email. Once you realize that the email is junk, spam, irrelevant, unimportant, duplicative, or distracting DELETE IT right away. I’ve found the secret to reducing workload and time spent in your email program is ruthlessness with the delete button. If you’re worried that you might need that email one day set up an archive folder that you move these lesser important emails to.
• Use filters. If you create email filters and rules that automatically sort and store incoming messages you’ll cut down on the time required to clean out your inbox each day. For instance, I receive about a hundred emails daily that are carbon copied to me for informational purposes only. It’s information that I rarely need, so I created a rule that moves those emails upon receipt to a folder for storage. If I ever need to go look at them, I can do that easily. You’d be surprised at how much of the “FYI” email you receive is actually not needed.
• Sign up for Sanebox. This is a service that I cannot recommend highly enough. I pay $4.95 each month (which Sanebox says gives me “sanity for the price of a latte) and I get back hours of time each week. Sanebox filters my email automatically so I don’t have to. Basically, Sanebox moves unimportant emails to another folder called “SaneLater” that I peruse nightly but leaves important emails in my inbox. You don’t have to do anything to get it work. It just works. You can train it to be smarter, but you don’t really have to. Sanebox includes a host of other features for email management that I’ve found useful – and I’m sure you will as well.
• Set aside email hours. One of the biggest distractions throughout the day is leaving your inbox open and attempting to reply to every email as it comes in. I have found far greater success with taking an hour in the morning, and then again in the late afternoon, to do nothing but email. It’s tough to hold yourself to that schedule but it does wonders for your productivity.
• Create expectations with your signature. Include language that explains what senders should expect with a statement like, “I reply to all email within 24 hours. If you’d like an immediate response please call me direct at 414-555-1212.”
• Set your download frequency to longer intervals. I used to have mine set for one minute. Then I changed it to 15. Now I’m on 30 minutes. I know people that set theirs to an hour – and still others who leave it on manual download only. I’m not quite that ready to let go, but I have really appreciated the ability to work on responding to email without the fear of another four or five pouring in at the same time.
• Turn off notifications. Dings, beeps, counters, bells, chimes, badges, and even the old-school “You’ve got mail!” announcement were all created to do two things – divert your attention and distract you. Turn them all off. You don’t need them. When you open your email program, you’ll know if you have new mail.
• Forward with care. Email onto others as you would like them to email unto you. Nobody really needs to see another email about cats. Or dogs. Or anything that says, “Forward this to 12 of your friends today and you will have good luck.” The way to stop the insanity is to stop the spread of stupid email by refusing to forward anything you would not appreciate receiving yourself. I’ve even responded to emails from my colleagues and friends within the industry with “Hey, pal, don’t send me crap like this. Please.” Now I only get the REALLY funny stuff.
Those are just a few tips to help you get your inbox under control. I’m sure I’ve missed a few that you’re already doing. Please share your best practices in the comments below.