By design, my inbox is the essential central hub of my workflow. It’s the way I routinely organise my time, prioritise tasks, remind myself of things I need to do and communicate with everyone.
I know some people rail against it … ‘It’s so impersonal – what is wrong with picking up the phone?’ I hear many cry!
Don’t get me wrong, I love talking to people on the phone and do it at every opportunity. But there is a downside.
I have a busy role, and many of the people I work with are similarly challenged by too many deadlines. The phone ringing is often an interruption to the flow, a quick email to ask the question/request a quick call back at a convenient moment can often be less intrusive.
I have often phoned someone only to realise the minute they utter a stressed ‘Hello!!!!’ that I should have sent them an email … don’t be the kind of person who elicits a groan when your number flashes up on the phone display 🙂
That’s not to say I’ve always been a fan of email, or that I don’t have moments where I am tearing my hair out with two coming in for every one that I deal with.
However, over the years I’ve developed several practical ways to manage my inbox effectively and, most importantly, to ensure it’s not managing me.
Try To Establish A Routine
I often struggle with routines – my role demands that I am flexible in the face of a constantly changing landscape so if I were obsessed with doing certain things at the same time every day I really would be setting myself up for a fall.
However there are a few things that I am religious about and one of them is my first activity of the day … a calm re-assessment of my inbox before the day takes over. And, at the end of the day, another quick scan and a read, respond to any of the quick wins, red flag the ones I REALLY need to deal with tomorrow, delete/ file any that have been dealt with/ are no longer relevant.
Turns out, my inbox is very manageable when I stick to this schedule. However, it really doesn’t take long for it to get out of control. Have you ever watched I love Lucy? Always great for a giggle and the following video perfectly sums up my email account to me – constant and consistent is the key to avoiding a compounding mayhem 🙂
If You Want To Receive Less Email, Send Less Email
As ridiculously simple as it sounds for such a pervasive problem, I’ve found this to be the golden rule of email management:
Send less of it!
We all know people at work who send huge amounts of email, and in contrast, those who send a very few one liners.
I used to work with one of the former, and at the time it seemed absolutely normal. It wasn’t until after they left that I realized my inbox traffic had reduced hugely. Turns out it wasn’t just their emails that were generating all of that inbox activity it was my responses to their emails, the responses of the people who were added to those threads, the responses of the people those people subsequently copied, and so on.
After recognizing this dynamic, I decided to conduct an experiment where I wouldn’t write an email unless absolutely necessary. It worked a charm – materially fewer emails and a far more navigable inbox.
I’ve tried to stick to the same rule ever since. It is a simple exercise but you will be impressed with the impact – give it a try!
Use Flags/ Categories
Two much underused features, but ones I honestly couldn’t live without.
When you have an email Inbox that groans under the weight of traffic it is essential to work out a system that makes your prioritisation an ‘at a glance’ task.
Having the ability to mark my emails up in a very visual way enables me to quickly glance through my inbox, respond to things that are most time pressing, red flag the things I need to look at next, delete the things that are irrelevant, and categorise those items I’d like to return to once I have the time.
This alleviates the pressure of feeling I have to do everything right now for fear if that one important email falls “below the fold” of my screen, it will be lost forever under the looming avalanche of prospective incoming messages. It also essentially serves as a to-do list of items to be addressed later.
I try to end each day with as few items marked with a red flag as possible, with the goal of having none. If I’m unable to get to everything that night, I’ll start the next morning by addressing the remainder.
And as for the categories … a great visual tool for allowing you to scan/ sort your emails quickly and efficiently. My favourite, absolutely couldn’t live without, email tool.
Give Some Thought To: The Recipients
It seems that for many people, the To: and Cc: fields have become one and the same thing. They are not.
You should use them to draw a clear distinction between:
- Who the email is being sent To: and from whom you expect a response
- Who goes into Cc: purely for their information
Many people in the To: line will oftentimes have the unintended consequence of generating six different email responses (and up to six different new threads) when one person’s response is all you needed – especially relevant to the next point …
In contrast to my firm advocacy of categories, ‘Reply All’ is the bane of my life … please don’t use it!
All the ‘done’, ‘fabulous’, ‘perhaps you could just change this tiny little bit’ and ‘thank you’ emails from people just means I have a huge amount of emails that have absolutely nothing to do with me to delete.
If you are going to reply to an email, PLEASE just reply to those who NEED to see it.
Filing And Rules
I know – boring, boring and double boring!
But you know what, if you want to be productive and maximise your time being able to simply click and drag dealt with emails to a tailored and intuitive filing system will not only save you immeasurable time in searching through a disastrously unweeded inbox but mean that you can find ANYTHING in double quick time. It might be boring but you can’t deny that it makes sense.
Keep It Simple – a folder for any subject that you will receive significant numbers of emails for and group them in a logical way.
Keep It Frequent – dealt with an email? FILE IT!
Keep It Only If Necessary – Will you ever need to read that email again? No? Delete it!
And as for ‘Rules’? I know, YAWN 😉
Do you, like me, have a never ending stream of interesting but not in the slightest bit pressing subscription emails – Amazon, BlogSpot, Executive Grapevine, Monster, LinkedIn … I could go on but I won’t!
All great emails that I wouldn’t want to unsubscribe from but irritating when they clog up my inbox, so I set up dedicated folders and set up automatic rules. There when I want to read the – Seen but not heard as it were!
Be Precise With Your Words
Do you remember playing Chinese whispers in school? How “Do you want to play marbles at lunchtime?” ended up as “I want to eat Weebles and punch vines”. While this was laugh out loud funny at school, in the grown up world it is anything but.
Choose them carefully in email to avoid ambiguity and misinterpretation. The more precise you are upfront, the less likely you’ll see subsequent emails generating confusion and asking follow up questions seeking additional clarity — and the more you and your team will be able to focus on the work at hand.
And if you are finding the idea too complicated to get over clearly, this is a clear sign that you should think about a face to face meeting!
Send Yourself Emails
I am always doing this!
I have a brain that largely refuses to turn off – walking the dog, driving home from work, reading my daughter a bedtime story or pinching out the tomato plants it will make random connections and suddenly I will have an ‘Oh I forgot to do that!’, ‘Ohhhh that would be a brilliant way to solve that problem’ or ‘I really must have a chat with so and so’ moment.
If you are anything like me you will have had one of those moments of inspiration just as you are dropping of to sleep at night only to wake up in the morning and remember the ‘Oh my, I’m a genius and I will definitely write that blog idea down in the morning’ eureka moment only to have completely forgotten the idea that prompted it!
Very frustrating – a quick email to yourself to ensure you don’t forget is a brilliant, quick and effective way to ensure you never forget anything!
Take The Combustible Stuff Offline
Email can be a valuable productivity tool when used properly. It can also be equally destructive when it’s not. If you find yourself in the throes of what is clearly becoming an antagonistic discussion online, do yourself a favour: STOP.
There is one particular person who springs to mind for me here, and I am almost 100% sure that everyone reading this will have come across such a person in their professional lives.
An absolute master of composing abrupt, patronising, bossy and thoroughly unpleasant to receive emails. I have to admit to being human and oftentimes being incredibly tempted to reply in kind! Sometimes sitting at my desk composing and deleting several responses until I have got it out of my system – and this is fine, AS LONG AS YOU NEVER HIT THE SEND BUTTON!
Either pick up the phone, go and see them to have the discussion in person or if there really is no response required ‘take a breath, delete and forget’ is one of my favourite tactics.
And The One Everyone Forgets …
Got something concentration intensive and time sensitive to complete?
CLOSE YOUR EMAIL ACCOUNT DOWN COMPLETELY
We all live in a world of constant connectivity, and whilst that offers us the most amazing range of advantages it can also be a pervasive destroyer of our ability to focus and concentrate.
The world won’t come apart at the seams if you turn your email off for an hour a day, there is always the phone for real emergencies, but you would be amazed at the effect an hour of not being interrupted by email notifications will have on your output and focus.
These are some of the most valuable inbox practices I’ve learned and used over the years. Everyone will have their own preferences that most suit the way they work but email is certainly a tool that can help immeasurably with effective productivity.
Anytime I veer too far from my these well worn habits, I inevitably find myself running faster and faster to simply stand still. The secret is to consistently pay attention to your own pain points and find ways that work for you to streamline your practices and productivity.
And to ALWAYS remember, just because you have been doing something a certain way for a long time really doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t re-examine if it is still working for you.