I was chatting recently with one of my work colleagues about how we manage our e-mail inbox. We discovered that we had some different techniques to improve how much time we spent actually reading and replying to e-mails, but we agreed that it was a slippery slope if not maintained.
Early on you are on top of all e-mails that come in, next thing you know some newsletter pollution gets into the mix and before you know it your junk to important e-mail ratio is off the charts. You then have a difficult choice to make, either abandon the account all together or spend many hours each week trudging through the crap to find the important stuff. Chances are you will end up missing important e-mails and get distracted things that just don’t matter.
Well, you don’t have to do either of these. Instead you can get your inbox in order and save yourself more time to do other more pressing things.
Here are some tips that helped us cut the time down that we need to deal with e-mails so we could move on to other important tasks.
- Don’t mix personal and business e-mails
Maintain a very clear separation between your work account and personal account. You are far more likely to be distracted and open e-mails from a family members and friends during work hours.
- Don’t sign up for newsletters
It seems like every site has a newsletter these days, even the unlikely ones that really don’t need them. For me Hull Trains comes to mind. I used them once to get a train from my wife’s home town and was attracted by the “sign up for latest offers and savings” jargon even though it was a rare occasion I would need a train. But, how could I miss out on the amazing Hull Trains deals! If you absolutely must have these e-mails coming into your inbox then create a rule or filter and move them to another folder. I use Outlook for work and Gmail for personal, both have very easy and intuitive ways of setting up rules for doing this.
- Remove yourself from unwanted newsletters
Spend some time removing yourself from e-mail newsletters or establishing rules so that the only e-mails I see in my inbox are ones that I can either quickly dismiss or read. It may take a couple of evenings and a few weeks to remove them as they come in but I highly recommend it.
- Avoid social media
It’s not just distraction but the sheer volume they pump out that is the killer. LinkedIn wants me to know about who just updated their job or their experience and endorsements. Twitter wants me to follow everyone and them to follow me and recently they have assumed tweets that I want to read. Don’t even get me started with Facebook.
- Don’t flag e-mails for later
For me a massive productivity boost was to stop flagging e-mails, if I don’t get to then chances are I will either forget or find myself sifting through my Outlook “to-do” section which consisted of hundreds of items flagged of varying importance. Don’t procrastinate, deal with the e-mail and move on.
- Display conversation threads
If you have Outlook change the inbox to display conversations, your e-mail threads will now actually have context to them and you can read through earlier e-mails on the same discussion.
- Maintain a zero inbox number: It’s very satisfying to have a zero inbox number. There is nothing more helpful than relating the inbox number to items that are truly unread. I see people with thousands of unread e-mails in the inbox and honestly I have no idea how they can find e-mails let alone know when they have completed the task of reading and responding to e-mails. Clean it out, its satisfying!
- Structured filters/folders
Outlook and Gmail allow you to structure e-mails in clever ways. In Outlook I have about 20 rules setup, some folders are very important to me like my JIRA and Asana folders that tell me what tasks have been commented, closed or need action. Gmail unfortunately annoys me with their filters, while they are good in that I can put e-mails into logical stacks the inbox still has all of these e-mails. It means that my inbox is never empty.
- Turn e-mail reading and replying into a task
E-mails are the biggest distraction. The little notification bar pops up and it is natural to want to click it and read, turn this feature off if you can. Reading and replying to e-mails should be a task that you do each day preferably at the same time each day. Get into the habit of doing this and then moving on to the actionable things you need to get done that day. I periodically through the day check my e-mails. My inbox will be zeroed out a few times, but I wont sit in the client waiting for e-mails to come in and I won’t reply to e-mails as soon as they come in. In our office we have Skype, another potentially big distraction, but if there is any important burning questions we message on there.
- Hook your e-mails up to a mobile device
This was something I was slow to get on board with. I didn’t want the distraction while I was out of using my phone, especially in personal time. But, chances are there will be times when you have time to check through your e-mails and deal with anything important that comes up. In the morning before I go to work I have taken to closing out some or all of my e-mails from the day before on my phone or iPad. It doesn’t take long and means when I get into work I know my first task is not immediately jumping into reading e-mails.
R.I.P Hotmail account. I shall never waste another minute trudging through the accumulated crap in the hopes of finding anything of interest.