Do you ever get to the end of the day and feel like you’re no further forward than when you started? Email can be a major culprit in stealing our focus and distracting us from the work that really matters. In fact, frightening statistics produced by Carleton University reveal that people spend a third of their time at work reading and answering emails, and that many of these are neither urgent or important.
Like it or loathe it, though, email is an integral part of business life and not something we can live without. What you can do, however, is boost your productivity and avoid the stressful feelings associated with email overload, using these 10 tips to help you better manage your inbox.
1. Make a date with your messages
It can be tempting to check your emails every time a notification appears, but doing so disrupts your workflow and breaks your concentration. A more effective alternative is to turn off all notifications and set a specific time to read and respond to emails as a batch. Depending on what suits your work style, you could do this once a day, or once in the morning and then again just before the end of the day.
2. Adopt the two-minute rule
If you must check your email more frequently than once or twice per day, set yourself a rule that if an email is going to take longer than two minutes to read and respond to, you will put it aside and come back to it later. Doing this prevents your inbox from becoming too full, while not disrupting your concentration for long periods of time.
3. Hit snooze
When you are expecting more than one email in relation to a particular topic, for example, contributions to a document or project, you may want to batch them and work on them altogether at a particular time. Some email clients give you the option to snooze an email until you want it to reappear in your inbox.
This is also useful for emails where you cannot respond straight away, perhaps because you need to research the answer. Snoozing emails avoids the physical and mental clutter of an inbox full of emails that cannot be dealt with.
4. Don’t reply to everything
Not every email requires or deserves a response, especially when you have colleagues who overuse the CC or BCC options on emails that are not relevant to you. Assess whether a reply is really necessary, and whether the benefit of replying outweighs the cost of the time spent writing it. For emails that require a response but are not urgent, create a folder and set aside time to clear it every few days.
5. Consolidate newsletters and subscriptions
If you find yourself inundated with newsletters and promotional emails, have a purge and ruthlessly unsubscribe from anything you haven’t opened in a while. If you decide you want to keep receiving particular emails, use a plugin such as Unroll.me to consolidate them into one folder, and read them at a specific time, rather than ad hoc as they come through. This will prevent losing focus on more important work.
6. Use a more appropriate alternative
Email isn’t always the most effective or efficient way of asking a question or communicating a message. Consider whether using the phone, setting up a Skype meeting or a good old fashioned face-to-face conversation might be more productive than sending an email. Not only does this lessen the chance of miscommunication, but it also vastly reduces the number of emails ping-ponging back and forth to achieve the same end. Similarly, don’t be afraid to reply with a phone call, just because the original question was asked via email.
7. Organize your inbox
Keeping on top of emails and retrieving old messages is significantly easier when your inbox is well organized. Use a system of folders, or labels if you’re using Gmail, to categorize your mail using a hierarchical structure. Create broad high-level categories, followed by more specific subcategories. Don’t forget you can still delete anything you won’t need at a later date to reduce clutter further still.
8. Set some rules
Most email clients allow you to set rules or filters that automatically send your emails to the folder most relevant to them. This can greatly reduce the amount of time you have to spend processing emails and helps keep your inbox organized. Check out how the corporations do the proper email management in this great article on Mailbird.com.
9. Design templates
Have a quick look through your sent items and highlight any areas where you often send similarly worded emails. Use these to create templates that allow you to make small changes and reuse the same email, rather than typing the whole thing out again.
10. Have a time limit
Even if you adopt the practice of only processing your email at set times of the day, give yourself an overall limit for the amount of time you spend in your inbox. Doing this will ensure that you prioritize the most important emails, while also keeping your answers as brief as possible.