Staying productive is hard. If we only had to worry about our own priorities, it would be a little easier, but in real life, we have requests and expectations coming at us from all directions. The biggest avenue for those outer expectations is our inboxes. Most of us have at least two inboxes – a physical paper inbox and an email inbox. I wrote about how to wrangle your paper in a previous post, and today, I want to start a series on how to manage your email inbox.
Even though email is dying a little because of other messaging apps, it is still prevalent especially in professional settings. Most of us have at least two email addresses – a personal and a work address and receive many messages each day. At my day job, I easily get over 100 emails every day, and at home, I may get 30 or so. These add up very fast, and if you don’t know how to efficiently triage your messages, you can quickly get buried and miss the important messages because they nearly disappear amongst all the junk.
I use Microsoft Outlook at my day job and Gmail for personal and My Life In Order email. These platforms are very different, but both common, so I will be using them as examples in this series. Regardless of what email platform you use, the overarching principles of email organization are the same. Email used to be a great, time-saving tool to replace handwritten or typed memos that had to be circulated through the office, but it’s turned into an invasive nuisance that the Washington Post reports takes the average white-collar worker a little over 4 hours each day to deal with. This equates to 20.5 hours each week and more than 1,000 hours each year! Even with the quantity of email we get, it doesn’t need to take up half of our work day, and by implementing some of these ideas, you should be able to dramatically improve your email efficiency!
Process your email, don’t read and re-read it
You should do 1 of 4 things with new emails - delete, file, do, or move to a task management system (we will talk about the details of this in a later post.) Don’t just read the your messages and leave them in your inbox to come back to later because you will end up either losing it, forgetting about it or you will re-read it over and over, which is just wasting your time! If a message is obvious junk or something you are sure you will never need again, just delete it! If it’s reference information that you may need later, file it. If it’s actionable use the 2 minute rule that David Allen talks about in his book, Getting Things Done. If the action can be completed in 2 minutes or less, just do it. If it will take longer than 2 minutes or can’t be done until you have additional information, add the action to a task management system and then either file or delete the message.
Over time, we all sign up for various newsletters either on purpose or inadvertently. Instead of continuing to delete them each time they are delivered, take an extra few seconds and unsubscribe from the ones you are no longer interested in. Every email marketing platform (that’s legit) has a little button somewhere at the bottom of the message that you can click on to get off of their email list. There are also some services that will help you get unenrolled from unwanted lists. Of course those of us who have an email newsletter don’t want you to unsubscribe (it hurts our feelings) but I care more about your productivity than my email list, so do what you’ve got to do! If you’re too scared to make that drastic of a decision to never receive a particular newsletter again, you can use the next tip instead.
Also be sure to report spam so it can be blocked for the future. Most email platforms have a mechanism to report spam. If you get rid of most of the junk, you'll spend less time sifting through all the things that don't matter for the few messages that do.
Rules, Rules, Rules
If you aren’t using rules in your email, pay attention! You can set up a variety of rules in whichever email platform you use. This allows you to never touch a message and direct it to go right to a particular folder, to be marked as read, or even go straight to the trash. For those newsletters you were too scared to unsubscribe from, you could set up a rule to move them to a special folder. Set a reminder on your calendar for a couple of months in the future to look at that folder. If you haven't missed anything important, you may feel comfortable completely unsubscribing.
You can also create rules for message you send. I have a rule so that if I put myself in the BCC line, it moves that message to a folder I have named “Waiting.” This allows me to remember to follow up if I don’t receive an answer to my message. You can also set up conditional formatting so messages from your boss are displayed in a different color. In the next installment of this series, I’ll show you some examples!
It’s ok to be a little lazy with your email! There are many ways that you can cut corners. In Outlook, my favorite is to set up quick steps to use just one click to complete an action like moving a message to a folder, creating an appointment with the contents of the message in the body, forward a message to a particular address, or create a new message to a particular address. Learn how to drag and drop messages either to a folder or to your calendar. Explore the menu that is displayed when you right click on a message. Add commonly used folders to a favorites area to save a few seconds each time you want to access it. Next time, I will provide some demos of how to set some of these shortcuts up.
Simplify your folders
I used to have an elaborate foldering system with folders for each project with sub folders and sub-sub folders, but what I realized a few years ago was I was spending so much time deciding where to folder things and nearly that same amount of time selecting the folder to look in when I wanted to find the message later that it just didn’t make sense. Now, I have only one folder per year with a sub-folder for every month. Anything I don’t delete goes in the folder for the month it was received. All email platforms have search functions, and the two I use – Gmail and Outlook – have excellent search tools, so you can find any message without having to know what folder you put it in. Some people like to keep EVERYTHING in their inbox and just search for what they need. Now, that makes me a little anxious, so I prefer to folder when I’m done. I look at my email inbox like my home mailbox. It’s just for new stuff that comes in, and just like I take in my physical mail every day or so, I like to keep my email inbox emptied.
In the second part of this series, I will have some demos to show you how to implement some of these tricks, but I need your help. I could use several of you to email my demo email address with various subject lines. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to help me create a good tutorial for you!
“Analysis | How Many Hours of Your Life Have You Wasted on Work Email? Try Our Depressing Calculator.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Oct. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/10/03/how-many-hours-of-your-life-have-you-wasted-on-work-email-try-our-depressing-calculator/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.bd59896565f2.
Ansaldo, Michael. “3 Tools That Easily Unsubscribe You from Emails.” PCWorld, PCWorld, 22 Mar. 2017, www.pcworld.com/article/3181014/software/3-tools-for-easily-unsubscribing-to-emails.html.
A woman with many roles in life who knows the necessity of keeping things in order!