I work from home and manage no less than seven (really!) different email accounts through my main email address. Four of those email accounts don’t see a lot of action but the other three receive, collectively, on average, about 100 emails per day. To say I see a lot of email in a day is an understatement. I get asked often how I manage to keep my inbox clean and organized and so today I’m going to share how I do just that. It’s important for me to stress that people who do not rely on email for their professional occupation aren’t quite so much at the mercy of inbox overload, and my advice is targeted to those like me – work from home contractors where email is one of the main forms of communication.
Disclosure: there are currently zero unread messages in my inbox, and eight messages that require my attention in some way or another. More on those in a moment.
Pick your set up and make it work for you. Whether you want to use Outlook or Mail or whatever other program or email client floats your boat, pick what you want and make it work for you. Spend at least two hours customizing your mail client and make the user interface something you like to look at that makes intuitive sense to you. I use Gmail, which is Google’s email client. It’s accessible anywhere, as it is a web-based email application. I chose it over others such as Yahoo or Hotmail because it has lots of storage space, isn’t filled with cutesy emoticons, and generally garners a bit more respect when compared side to side to the others. There is a very funny little comic by The Oatmeal about what your email address says about you, and I think it’s pretty darn accurate. I should say here this post is not an advertisement for Google, but my experience is mostly limited to Gmail and so I’m going to be listing their features a lot more than others.
Send all email to the same place. All of my other email addresses forward to Gmail, and I am able to “send as” all of them through Gmail as well. Do not waste time with multiple inboxes you have to log in and out of. Chances are, you’ll forget one of them at one time or another, and the less time you spend logging in or opening programs, the better. If your program doesn’t have the ability to receive mail from multiple addresses, and ideally, send mail from multiple addresses, you are using the wrong email client.
Use filters, labels, and organization right off the bat. One of the other reasons I chose Gmail is because it has the ability to set up rules on how to handle email as it comes into my inbox, rather than after it arrives. I have set up rules so that, for example, low priority email newsletters are tagged with a label of “newsletters” and are immediately filed into a folder so I can read them when I have time. They don’t ever come into my inbox itself, and so I don’t feel bogged down and overwhelmed within a few seconds of opening the interface. By setting up rules to file incoming mail into folders that make it easier for you to visually prioritize your inbox, you’ll save both mental energy and time.
Unsubscribe from stuff you don’t read. Speaking of email newsletters, take 30 minutes and unsubscribe from any newsletter you have not read the last two issues of. You’re not going to read it, so stop kidding yourself and stop cluttering up your inbox. Perhaps when you slay the inbox dragon, you can find time to resubscribe, but if you aren’t reading what you get into your inbox right now, it’s a waste and all it does is add to the pile looming over your head.
Learn how to prioritize your incoming mail. That email from a friend of yours asking you to do something next Thursday is lower on the totem pole than the email from your co worker asking you about the TPS report. Resist the urge to open the mail from your friend until after the email from the paycheque has been dealt with. Chronological is not necessary the most effective way to act on email and consider changing the way you view your incoming mail if it’s possible.
Dedicate email time in your work hours. I often sit down to work in small blocks of time while Kale naps and have a small list of things to do. Some of those items will actually say “email so-and-so” because I need to allow for time to write, spell check, and send emails related to my work. Email takes time, whether we want to admit it or not, and tacking it on to the beginning or end of your working session is ineffective. You may also want to consider setting specific blocks of time for email. One person I know, Amber Strocel checks her email five times a day and at no other time. By making it a specified time, she can focus on the inbox and then put it out of her mind until the next designated email-checking time.
Write great emails. Work to become more succinct. Professional emails take a few more minutes to write because they should also be spell checked and written with appropriate language. Many of the emails I get related to work astound me with their lack of professionalism. Whether it is the email address itself, or whether it is using internet shorthand, I automatically file those emails as “unprofessional” in my head regardless of the content of the email itself. Read through the email you just composed and see if it can be made shorter or clearer. A clearer message means less chance of being misunderstood and reduces the chance of having to write clarification emails. And finally, use signatures. They might be cheesy but they save time and they don’t need to be fancy. I use Autopen, a Google Chrome plugin that can assign a signature based on which outgoing email address I am replying with. Check that your browser / email client allows you to set signatures based on outgoing email addresses.
Act on the email as soon as you can and then file it (archive / delete / your choice). Those eight messages I mentioned that are in my inbox? I keep them there as a bit of a to-do list. Each one requires a small action on my part, and when my working session happens later today, I will knock those emails off, one by one, until my inbox is at zero. If any of them cannot be completed today, and that happens – trust me, that happens, they will sit in my inbox until they are done. My goal every day is to have an empty mailbox but I don’t always reach that goal. When my working time starts, here is how I will handle them: any that require me to write a reply that require no research or other action, get done first. Any that require research or other action (such as collating some data or preparing a document) get done next. Any that are social or an email newsletter are dealt with after that. Any that are time sensitive but don’t require any action at this time (for example, there is one that is a map to an event I am going to on Saturday) get starred and ignored.
If it can be done on the go, do it. If you aren’t using set email checking times, consider knocking off the super simple emails right away. For example, if we are outside playing and an email comes in that only requires a quick reply of one sentence or less, I act on it immediately and file it. Gone are the days when not replying to an email for a week is acceptable – if your professional occupation has an email address attached to it, you need to reply in 24 – 48 hours to be taken seriously, and sooner than that if possible even if it is simply to say you are very swamped but will get back to the person in a few days (just don’t forget!). It’s okay to set rules about your office availability to avoid burnout like “no work emails on Saturdays” or “no work emails at night” or whatever works for you, but remember the person sending the email may have a timeline they need to fulfill.
Finally, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. I have two friends who become paralyzed by their inbox. They get so many emails they doesn’t know which one to act on first, and then just starts ignoring them all and pretty soon there are over 200 unread emails, some of which might be critical. It’s infuriating for the sender to have no response at all, and it’s stressful for the person to stare at a ridiculously full inbox. Just like we build time for showering, we need to build time for communication. If you find yourself getting bogged down to the point where you start getting phone calls from people asking about an email they’ve sent you, you need to re-evaluate how you are managing and come up with a better system. Also? Sometimes you might just need to “delete all” and start over.