Email management isn’t easy. Just when you think you have it under control, it has a way of overtaking you again.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by email, but it doesn’t have to be a burden. Here are my favorite tips to keep email under control.
1. Keep your inbox empty
There’s something strangely satisfying about a clean inbox. It increases productivity because you can zip right through your inbox in a few minutes without having to sort through old ones. And it reduces mental clutter. There’s nothing like a stuffed-to-overflowing inbox that weighs you down.
2. Declare email bankruptcy
If your inbox is completely out of control, declare email bankruptcy. Bite the bullet and delete it all (or, if you’re not quite ready to take such a definite step, archive it all). Start over, start fresh. If it’s been sitting there for months, the person who’s waiting for your reply is most likely over it. And be realistic, are you really going to get to all those messages? Decide which of the most recent ones you want to keep, select the rest and delete or archive. No one will die, I promise. And think of how free you’ll feel!
3. Touch it once
This is a mindset you have to work hard to get into, but once it becomes habit, you’ll love it. When you open a message, review it and then do something with it. Don’t let it sit there! Emails that sit there only have to be weeded through again later, costing you more valuable time and energy.
4. Practice email triage
In order to maintain a touch-it-once policy, decide what to do with an email immediately. Here are your choices:
- Respond to it. If you can respond to the email message in less than 3 minutes, do it on the spot. Get it out of the way.
- Task it. Is it something you need to act on but doing so will take more than a few minutes? Put it on your to-do list. Then, when you’re in get-it-done mode you don’t have to hunt through your inbox to figure out what you need to do.
- Archive it (if you use Gmail). What is archiving? It’s sending your emails into a “holding tank” somewhere in your Gmail account. We don’t care where, as long as it’s not in your inbox! “But how will I find it?” you ask. Simple. Basically, you’ll Google it. Gmail has a search feature which is like your very own Google search for your Gmail. Need that email from Aunt Jane? Simply type “aunt jane” in your Gmail search bar at the top of your inbox screen and all your messages with those words will pop up. No need to deal with the hassle of making a folder, filing it and hoping you’ll remember where you put it later. (If you don’t use Gmail, file it away in an easy-to-find spot.)
- Delete it (or Spam it). This one is a no-brainer. Do you really need it? If you know straight away you don’t, just delete. Done.
5. Unsubscribe liberally
If you’re like me, you’ve subscribed to a fair number of newsletters over the years. Unless a newsletter adds real value to your life or work (you know, like the Useletter, wink), unsubscribe. Any legitimate newsletter will have an “unsubscribe” link at the very bottom of the email (sometimes in very fine print so you may have to look closely). Click it to unsubscribe. If you don’t see an “unusubscribe” link, the email is likely spam, in which case I generally just mark as spam.
6. Understand (and use!) EOM
EOM means “End of Message” and is a handy time-saving tool but it’s not widely known. Basically, “eom” can be inserted at the end of an email subject line to indicate there’s nothing in the message. It’s like saying, “There’s no need to open this email and/or reply back to me. What you just read there in the Subject line was all I needed to say.” My husband and I use this when we can. When I see an “eom” I know I can just move on and deal with the next message.
7. Schedule a regular blitz
The keyword here is schedule. Make this a regular part of your day, week or month (whichever is reasonable for you), otherwise you’ll be drowning again in no time. Block out 5-15 minutes to go through your inbox and clear it out. Put your email blitz on your calendar to remind yourself. Set the timer, and go. Remember, touch it once!
8. Find an email-checking routine that works for you
A while ago I read Never Check E-mail in the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work (affiliate link) by Julie Morgenstern. On pages 97-98, she makes a good point:
The most dramatic, effective way to boost your productivity is to completely avoid e-mail for the first hour of the day. Instead, devote that first hour every day to your most critical task. When you devote your first hour to concentrated work–a dash–the day starts with you in charge of it rather than the other way around. It’s a bold statement to the world (and yourself) that you can take control, pull away from the frenetic pace, and create the time for quiet work when you need it…Think about it: E-mail is really nothing but a bunch of interruptions and distractions that appear in your in box without an invitation. Even checking your e-mail for a minute is a surefire way to open up all the different drawers of your brain and immediately distract your mind with a zillion other issues. Once that happens, prolonged concentration on anything, critical or not, is nearly impossible.
I tried this method for a week and I did notice some productivity benefits, but I have since reverted back to my old method. I’m the type that likes to start working with a clean slate so emptying out my inbox first thing works better for me.
The point is, there’s not one right way to manage your email. Just figure out what works for you. And then do it!