Email may eventually be surpassed by texting and various social networks for our methods of communication, but for now – it is here to stay. And while I never fully achieve that glorious “inbox zero,” I do agree with the principles behind it. I have given several classes on this subject, and while very few people have a true handle on their email, much of the problem is not making email a priority. Email is NOT a storage mechanism. It is a clearinghouse for information. Get as much out of your inbox as possible and it won’t seem so overwhelming.
1. Do NOT check your email every time one comes in.
It is often a suggested tactic to set aside ONE time a day for email. While that may work for some people (more power to you!), I can’t do it. I definitely have turned off sounds so that I don’t jump in every time email pings me. I quit my email when I don’t need it, and sweep through a few times a day when I can concentrate on it. I also take a good hour once a week, usually Monday or Friday to really clean out the stuff that has collected that I don’t need.
2. Sort email when reading.
I often will sort by person so that I can address things by client and be in the mindset for their specific project as I go through email by email. Then I will sort by date backwards and forward and make sure nothing has slipped through the cracks.
3. Flag email for later reading.
If the email is not urgent, flag it (in whatever way is most efficient for your email application) for later. But don’t forget to go back! Or mark as unread if you REALLY need to keep that email in your face. I use the app Postbox and their “topics” tag is so helpful to sort by work, blog, personal, etc.
4. File emails away.
Have a folder or directory for every current project and move emails there that pertain to the project. Thus the emails are there for you to search as needed, but they’re out of the way. Then backup the folder to your hard drive after the project is over and delete it out of email. I often have a “memos” folder for every project on my hard drive and save emails there as a project goes along, and that’s where the back-up goes too.
5. Move action items off into to-do lists, agendas, etc.
While I do tend to flag things I need to handle immediately within email, it is better to view them as ticklers of info (and most importantly, things you need to reply to) rather than your to-do list. A to-list is just that. The list of things you need to do by a certain date that need to be checked off specifically.
6. Set filters.
I have a filter that moves anything with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. into a folder that I can quickly look through and delete all at one time. Someone suggested a filter that looks for the word “unsubscribe” in the body of the email to move all newsletters out of the inbox for later viewing. Any email with the word “anonymous” in it goes straight to my trash. Also, there are services like Unroll.me to clear out unwanted stuff.
7. Get in the habit of deleting.
Be ruthless. Unless you really need something, delete it as you read it rather than having to go back later, re-read it and then delete it. Honestly, it will still be in your trash if you really need it.
8. Lean on auto-reply when you are out of the office.
Generally the rule is to try and reply within 24 hours, right? If you are going to be out of the office for more than one day, set up an auto-responder and buy yourself time. I almost always leave the auto-responder on through noon on my day back as well.
9. Save templates of frequently used emails.
NOW BE CAREFUL. It’s the worst mistake in the world to send an email with the wrong name. Make your template as generic as possible, with room for you to personalize at the front end. Don’t even save the template with “Dear Name” – just keep blocks of boilerplate text handy so you are not spending time re-writing it over and over.
10. Be a thoughtful emailer.
Give unto others, as the saying goes. Email as little as possible, as efficiently as possible. Think about the subject line of your email to make it easier for them to quickly know what you are emailing about. When emailing large groups, always use BCC to avoid that awful reply-all torture. Break up large chunks of text into quickly skimable paragraphs. Tell them what you need and when you need it.