Control Your Email Before It Controls You

4 Tactics to Prevent an Overwhelming Inbox

June 2015

Email was designed to simplify our lives, not take them over. Instead of making running your business more efficient, the incessant flow of new messages can often create distraction, or a nagging sense of work that remains to be done. Before you get buried under an avalanche of emails, follow these four steps to keep your email from getting out of hand.

Schedule Email Checks

Too often, we treat every email as if it were urgent, when very few actually are. A way to immediately get the upper hand on your inbox is to turn off email notifications on your phone and your desktop. Close your Outlook or Gmail, and schedule specific times during the day to process the messages in your inbox. Rather than letting your inbox dictate when emails are answered, set your own terms. Tamara Myles, author of The Secret to Peak Productivity, recommends starting with scheduling time to check email four times each day and adjusting until you find the perfect balance.

Remember that these checks are just to process the new emails, not necessarily to answer them all. Myles recommends following the “two-minute rule”—if it will take two minutes or less to respond, forward, or delete, do so as soon as you open your inbox. But if it requires a longer time commitment, perhaps pulling up some more complicated information, add the email to your list of tasks to manage when time allows.

Very few things require immediate action, and senders will soon get used to the fact that you may not respond the minute they contact you—and more than likely respect the fact that email is not dictating your workday.

File Effectively

To work quickly through piles of emails, set up a clear, relevant filing system that simplifies where each incoming message ought to go. This may mean a folder for each department of your business, a folder for general reference information and newsletters, one for invoices and billing, and so on.

To make this effort easier, productivity expert Penny Zenker recommends renaming emails with new, more specific, subject headings when needed. If a colleague emails a question about a new product and just uses “Question” as the subject, change the header to the name of the product when responding. This will not only help to immediately remind you of the topic when they reply, but will make it easier to find the email in future months.

This is also a useful tactic when a new topic is introduced in an existing email chain. If a customer follows up a quote by asking you several in-depth questions about pricing, change the subject line to include “Pricing Details” in your response.

Touch It Once

One of the biggest time wasters when it comes to email is the tendency to open a message, then close it again, holding off on taking action and leaving it sitting in your inbox. That means later that day or week, you will be looking at the exact same message, wondering all over again what to do with it. Commit to only dealing with the email once.

It is tempting to let your inbox serve as a “to-do” list of items yet to be finished. But those messages soon pile up, and every time you open your inbox, you will be faced, yet again, with tasks that need to be done. Remember that your inbox should be viewed only as a processing station. If an item cannot be processed in two minutes, then assign it to your actual “to-do” list and move the email out of the inbox, so that you have only had to touch it once.

Filter and Unsubscribe

One of the best ways to save yourself time sorting through emails is to keep messages you do not need to manage during the day from hitting your inbox at all. A number of email services offer filters that automatically direct messages from particular senders to preferred folders, rather than your inbox. Low-priority emails best read during downtime in the evening or on the weekend can be shuttled to a reference folder. Messages from friends can go to a folder for non-work communications, perhaps replied to during a break. Products like SaneBox can help in this management effort, prioritizing emails and reminding you when an email you sent has yet to receive a reply.

You may also consider setting up an entirely different email address for things such as personal email, but if filters are managed effectively, this should not be necessary.

Get comfortable with the Unsubscribe link. It probably seems easy enough to just trash the weekly bulletins you never read. But a better use of your time is to take the extra few seconds to open the email, click Unsubscribe at the bottom, and save yourself the time of trashing their emails every week for the unforeseeable future. The best defense against email clutter is a good offense.



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