It’s Monday again – for some of you, it’s the first Monday in a new fiscal year. And for all too many web workers, that means that once again it’s time to face the horrid thought of opening an email client and seeing an inbox filled with hundreds or thousands of messages clamoring for a response. Really, there’s no reason for this. I’m probably in the 95th percentile for email, with hundreds of messages coming in every day, and yet at the moment there are only four of them in my inbox – and those four will be gone by this afternoon. You can do it too. Here are my own tips on getting control of your email: pick and choose the techniques that work for you, and you can make a dramatic impact on that junk heap of an inbox.
Stamp out Spam: Get a good spam-filtering solution in place. We’ve covered several ways to do this. If 99% of the spam coming in doesn’t just vanish, you need to switch. Get rid of the time you spend looking at and thinking about spam, and of the time you spend looking at the spam folder to make sure you didn’t lose any good mail. There really are solutions that good out there.
Unsubscribe from Clutter: If you’re like me, you piled up a bunch of subscriptions to email newsletters in those halcyon days before your inbox exploded. If you’re not reading them any more, unsubscribe. If you can’t figure out how to unsubscribe, set up rules to delete them on arrival. Email that just piles up unread is worthless.
Cherry-pick the Easy Stuff: Got an email that you can answer in two minutes or less? Answer it and file it. Done. Get it out of your inbox as quickly as possible. As far as filing goes, I don’t care if you’re a filer or a piler, but you need to have at least one folder outside of your inbox where you put messages after they’re answered.
Don’t Store Tasks in Your Inbox: If an email needs future action, it’s a task. For example, I get lists of features from clients that need to be implemented (I get bug lists too, but let’s not talk about that). I deal with these emails using a three step process: flag it, create a task, file it. When the task bubbles to the top of my task list, I can go to my flagged mail folder and quickly find the associated email; when the task is done, I clear the flag and it’s already filed away. This prevents my inbox from becoming the Sargasso Sea of circling email seaweed.
Batch the Real Email: Context-switching is the death of productivity for most work that requires concentration. It doesn’t help to be Pavlov’s dog, responding to that little “ding” by dropping everything to answer the latest email message that came in. Answer emails in batches, rather than every time one arrives. I typically make three or four passes a day to pick off the easy, two-minute emails and set aside one block of concentrated time to deal with the ones that require actual thought and composition.
Don’t be Afraid to Break the Chain: You will not have seven years’ bad luck if you don’t answer an email. When things come into your inbox, take a moment to think about whether they can be deleted, filed unanswered, or responded to by telephone or instant message. You should be able to substantially reduce your email load if you can break the habit of trying to respond to every one that comes in with a return volley.
Bite the Bullet: All the good habits in the world won’t help if you currently have 2500 messages in your inbox. Before you declare email bankruptcy and start over, take the phone off the hook, cancel your meetings for a day, and work to clean up the mess. Spend a day or a weekend to answer or file or delete as much of the mess as you can, to get back to a good starting point. It’s hard to get motivated to stay on top of things if you’re trying to ignore an elephant under the rug.
Be Consistent: Whatever set of techniques you end up choosing, the most important thing is to apply them consistently. When you get down to the ZEB (zero email bounce) point and get that smile on your face, remember what worked for you and do it again – and again – and again. If you attend to your email every working day, eventually good inbox hygiene will just be a habit and you can spend your time doing your real work instead of dreading the mess.
None of this is rocket science, and you’ve probably seen every single one of these techniques before. But if you haven’t applied them, there’s no time like the present. Perhaps we can make July National Clean Up Your Inbox Month.