I love email. I hate email.
Most people probably have a similar love/hate relationship with email as they grapple daily with their inbox. In fact, I hate email... I just hate not getting email more. And, that's the dilemma that most professionals face when it comes to their inbox. It's gotten worse over time. Now, it's not just emails. We get messages from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and beyond. Most of us are managing multiple inboxes across multiple platforms and it doesn't seem to be getting any better or easier to manage. My inbox has become a never-ending game of Tetris, where emails continue to flow in and stack up to the breaking point. Many professionals have declared email bankruptcy (where they simply delete every single email from their inbox with the hopes that if the contents were truly critical, the sender will reach out them or call as a follow-up).
Most of us rely on email for critical business communications and email bankruptcy is not a legitimate option, so let's look at five ways to master the inbox.
- Create folders. Some of the newer Web-based email clients do not have folders (like Gmail), but they do have "tags" (words you can use to associate multiple messages to), either way creating tags or folders are critical to getting organized. My general strategy is to create a folder for every client or project. On top of that, I create folders for each member of our team at Twist Image (in case it's a conversation related to an individual instead of a specific project). I also have folders for HR, business development, interesting news items that may wind up becoming content fodder for my newspaper columns, Blog post, or an idea for a book. I also track trends using my inbox. If something interesting happens with Facebook, I email the link to myself and file it under Facebook in my trends folder. Using sub-folders is another way to keep your emails organized.
- Create rules. I set-up a lot of email alerts from places like Google Alerts or when somebody new is following me on Twitter or requesting to connect on Facebook or LinkedIn. With a couple of simple clicks on the "rules" button, you can have emails sent from a specific email address or emails that have a similar piece of content in the body of the message to redirect automatically to a pre-defined folder. This avoids inbox clutter and clog-ups. This tactic works great if you subscribe to a lot of e-newsletters as well.
- Get it done. In 2001, David Allen wrote the groundbreaking business book, Getting Things Done - The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. While I'm not a sworn devotee of Allen and his techniques (I've managed to develop my own coping mechanisms over time), one gem of productivity insight is culled from this masterful tome: if you can get it done in 60 seconds or less, do it right away. Emails that don't require more than a few sentences to respond to get done as soon as possible and then get filed in their specific folders (or deleted). The longer emails are attended to in-between meetings, but I will set aside one hour - every day - to deal with the emails that require more writing/thinking. Lastly, I don't beat myself up if every email doesn't get responded to on the same day that it was received. The non-critical messages get dealt with in due process, but I do respond to every email that requires a response.
- Create a hierarchy of response. During the day, clients or potential new business get responded to first, then staff, then requests for media or writing, and then family and friends (unless it's an obvious emergency). It doesn't matter if that rule gets broken from time to time, but it's the spirit of: clients first, team second and everything else after that, which allows me to look at my inbox with a different perspective. Create a hierarchy of who gets responded to and in what order.
- Tell people - in your emails - how to work better with you. Most people have no idea how to use email. They respond to everyone on an email with a bunch of people who were only cc'd and they'll do things like send back an email that says, "ok," as if that adds any value to the chain of communication. You can set the ground rules by putting some insights into your signature file. I've seen people with signature files that not only have their contact information, but say things like, "please only respond back to me, the other people who are listed on this email are just there to be kept in the loop," or, "there's no need to respond to back me, I just wanted you to see this so that you are kept in the loop." A little clarity on how you like to interact via email will help keep your inbox clutter down to a dull roar and it will also teach other people new ways that they can use their email with more efficacy.
Most people are in email hell.
It's on their smartphones and it's on their screens for most of their waking moments. Many people look at their email before going to the bathroom as their first act of the day and many people look at their email right before they close their eyes for the night. Some may see this as an indictment on our society's inability to find a peaceful balance in our work-centric lives. Ultimately, the only way to really survive your inbox is to make a personal promise that you are going to better manage your technology, instead of letting your technology manage you.
What are your best strategies for overcoming your inbox?
The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:
- Montreal Gazette - Five ways to master your email inbox and manage your technology.
- Vancouver Sun - Five ways to service your inbox for better email efficiency.