Email was originally intended to be a tool to improve communication, productivity and efficiency. Reality begs a different picture. For years now we’ve been plagued by statistics decrying the amount of time we waste in our inboxes. Oft-cited studies by Adobe, McKinsey & Company, The University of Glasgow, Microsoft, and others remind us just how big of a drag email can be: an estimated 20 weeks a year checking and sending email, in fact.
The frustration that accompanied this worsening email situation spawned a variety of approaches to solving the conundrum, from the concept espoused in Getting Things Done to Merlin Mann’s popular dream of Inbox Zero, to corporate training courses like McGhee’s Take Back Your Life. Though they each took the concept to their own extremes in ways that may not be considered helpful today, the basic premise was simple. Use simple, logical strategies to keep the constant barrage of email from stressing you out, driving you to distraction, or worse.
Today, popular culture would have us think more in terms of wellness than of absolutes. You don’t have to have a completely empty inbox before you can leave work, you just need it under control enough to meet your own definition of order and sanity. Regardless of where your threshold sits, there are common best practices for keeping a leash on the email beast.
The first step is simple. Make sure you aren’t trying to juggle multiple inboxes at once. Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate. It’s easy enough to set up the ability to send from different addresses from one inbox, so why make this part complicated?
Email should not be like your Twitter feed, where you can drop in and out as time permits. You need to actively manage your email, and that means spending at least thirty minutes daily clearing it. This is a structured activity where you are not disrupted or distracted, but can really focus and achieve significant traction. That said, don’t make that email management time last all day. Pick one time throughout the day that you’ll handle this task, and keep it to that one time only. Block it on your calendar if need be, but be intentional about it. You control the email, not the other way around.
Many inboxes become a storage system that is never cleaned. Due to the ever increasing capacities of our inboxes, people never feel obligated to delete an email, which then leads to a cluttered, frustrating and useless system. When you set aside time for your emails, assess each email instantly and make a decision. Does that email require you to do anything? Will you ever read or need that information again? If the answer is no, then delete it. You don’t need it, so why are you keeping it? If you do need it, use a tagging system so that you become more efficient and can locate specific emails instantly. The old idea of Delete – Do – Delegate – Defer made sense for a reason. Push the email into one of these folders or buckets and move on.
How many email lists notify you about a promotion or a daily offer? Signing up for Groupon may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but is it beneficial to your career? Do you even open those emails? If you use Outlook or Gmail, here is a walkthrough of how to quickly unsubscribe from all of those lists. They add nothing but clutter and confusion to your inbox and you will be significantly more productive without them. Think of email notifications in the same way. If you don’t actively use them, turn them off.
This may sound rash, but if you don’t see your name as the first recipient, or you don’t recognize the sender of the email, delete it. Some might call this a risky strategy, but in general, people who are sending you and two hundred other people the same email at the same time are simply spamming you. On the flip side, model the behavior you want to receive: don’t forward emails, or cc: everyone in the company. Make sure the messages you send are purposeful and efficient.
Take stock of what types of emails you receive and what patterns you can call out. If you’re getting a large number that require the same response, set up a filter and build yourself a template. There’s nothing wrong with efficiency. The second half of this is, when you do write out a customized response, keep it short. If the response requires a long explanation, suggest a quick phone call. No matter how fast you type, it will likely save you time in the long run.
The key thing to understand is how you think of your email inbox. It is not and never was intended to be an unlimited storage container for correspondence, but rather more of a railroad station, where items arrive and then wait to be sent on their next journey. By getting into the habit of prioritizing and actively attacking your email on a daily basis, you will become more productive, and less likely to miss that important email.