Ah, the humble email. It is, without a doubt, an essential tool of modern business. It’s convenient, it’s quick and it’s less intrusive than a phone call. It allows us to run our businesses from anywhere in the world, at any time of the day or night.
This offers us enormous benefits but what makes it great is also what can make it a nightmare to deal with. The sheer volume of emails we send and receive can make managing your inbox a huge headache.
If you find yourself wondering if this quick and convenient method of communicating is actually hindering your productivity, you’re not alone.
The most recent study Mckinsey conducted on the subject shows that at work we spend a quarter of our time in our inboxes. A quarter! The Huffington Post laments that the average British worker receives 122 emails a day. And as they rightly point out, that’s only an average – chances are you are receiving a whole lot more than that.
So how do we manage them all?
Well many of us open that mail app in the morning and never close it again. We simply minimise it and keep a watchful eye for that little red circle to appear or for that ping to resonate ominously around the room.
Constantly checking your emails hampers any kind of flow you might have been in. You get sidetracked and before you know it the day is over, you’ve (technically) logged off or made your way home, but you just can’t help but check those emails again. And again.
It’s been reported by the CIPD that a staggering 40% of us check our emails at least 5 times outside of work.
So how exactly do you go about taming that inbox once and for all?
Do you dream of an empty inbox? You’re not alone. There’s even a name for it. It’s called ‘inbox zero’ and for many of us it feels like nothing but a pipe dream, something to aspire to sure, but something you’ll never actually be able to achieve. And perhaps that’s true. But you can at least get a little bit closer to it.
So what’s the first step towards inbox serenity? Get organised.
Clear it out…
Your inbox should be for new mail not a default folder for ALL mail.
Start by deleting everything you no longer need. Review your subscriptions and unsubscribe from those that aren’t relevant or that you never read. Review your preferences – if you can’t read that daily digest, perhaps you could read a weekly one?
Next you need to set up some folders.
Perhaps you like to keep it broad and simple and use names like To Do / Defer / Delegate / Reference. Or perhaps you’d prefer to organise your emails by project or team.
There isn’t a one size fits all solution, the best solution is the one that works for you. Once you’ve decided on your structure, spend some time sorting through the emails you still have in your inbox and file them into those new folders.
If your email programme lets you, set up rules to automatically forward those emails you don’t really need to deal with right now into your new folders.
Those sales updates or internal newsletters, those article feeds or blogs that you subscribe to. You want to read them of course, but you don’t need to read them right now whilst you’re in the thick of that project or that deadline is looming.
Reroute them to dedicated folders so you know where they are and then read them when you get a chance.
KEEP ON TOP OF IT
So now that your inbox has been decluttered and you have your new folders and rules in place, sit back and enjoy the sense of peace it will inevitably bring.
But don’t rest on your laurels. If you want to maintain that tranquility, you need to keep on top of those emails on a day to day basis. Here’s how.
Instead of checking your inbox every time you hear that ping, set fixed times. Maybe it’s first thing in the morning, or right after lunch, or perhaps it’s just before you go home.
Whatever your schedule looks like, stick to it and make sure you close that app down properly so you aren’t tempted to take a peek.
Let your colleagues know that you might not reply straight away and if it’s urgent they should find another way to get hold of you.
Deal with it…
During your scheduled email time, open each mail and do one of the following, based on the handy 4 D’s of Decision Making, devised by Sally McGhee:
Delete: any messages that aren’t relevant, any junk, any out of office emails. If you don’t need it, get rid of it.
Deal: with any messages that need immediate attention. If you’ve just been copied in for information, read it then file it in the relevant folder.
Delegate: anything that can be done by someone else. Forward it to their inbox whilst freeing up your own.
Defer: it if it’s something you need to deal with but not right now. Save it for the hour you’ve scheduled in at the end of the day, or wait until you’ve got some spare time. You might find it useful to flag these messages, so you can see at a glance what’s high priority and what’s less so.
GET SOME HELP
There are, of course, a multitude of apps designed to help you manage email overload. We found this great roundup of the best ones currently available.
They work with a variety of email providers and offer cool features such as managing multiple email accounts, automatically recognising important messages, and the ability to quickly filter, delete, store and organise your mail.
If you aren’t subject to restrictive IT policies, these apps might make managing your emails a whole lot simpler.
SPREAD THE WORD
You’ve cleared out that inbox, structured your folders and have gotten into the swing of managing your emails on a day to day basis. Perhaps you’re even using one of those apps. So why not take it a step further?
If you’re running your own business or managing a team or project, try to instill good habits into everyone. Talk to your colleagues about communicating effectively: agree to stop copying people in if it’s not necessary, to keep emails short and to the point, to use other communication tools where appropriate.
Before you know it, those feelings of horror you used to get when you looked at your inbox will be a thing of the past.