Lately, I’ve been making this assertion:
The only person responsible for your out-of-control email inbox is you.
You may have seen this email charter that’s circulating around the web. It takes a kind of tragedy of the commons approach to overflowing inboxes. While better email etiquette can’t hurt, it’s only half (or maybe a quarter) of the problem. We all need to own the problem of our inbox.
It’s 2013, and we now have enough tools, tricks and best practices to keep our inboxes under control. Even Bill Gates manages, and he’s probably busier than most of us.
Your inbox is not a to-do list
I was recently talking to a colleague about this, and he asked for my advice on how to better manage his email. This is what I wrote to him. I’ve written versions of some of this advice in a previous post. These recommendations are quite common, so productivity keeners aren’t likely to find anything new here.
- Your email software is not a to-do list. Maintain a separate task list, preferably a digital one that you can access from multiple devices (like your phone, if you’re in a meeting without your computer). I use a task list called Remember the Milk, My colleague uses one called Things. Try a few and pick your favourite. Incidentally, your brain isn’t a to-do list or a calender, either.
- Set aside dedicated chunks of time for your email. Maybe 30 minutes to start the day, and a few other similar chunks throughout the day. Try not to obsessively check your email at other times. Train your coworkers that if they need to reach you urgently, they should use instant messenger (IM) or the phone. Incidentally, every office in the world should adopt an IM system. This would significantly reduce the amount of email you receive from colleagues.
- Your inbox is a loading bay, not a warehouse.You aren’t answering email, you’re processing it. For every email you receive, ask yourself “can I deal with this in less than three minutes?”a) If yes, then answer it immediately and delete or archive it.b) If not, assign a task to it and, if possible, associate the email with the task. We use web-based email, so it’s easy for us to include an email message’s URL to a particular task in our to-do list.If you need to follow up on an email you sent, create a to-do item on your task list. Don’t leave the email in your inbox.
- Create rules and filters.You almost certainly get a bunch of email that you never want to read. One of our clients, for which I have an email address, sends a daily email message to the entire head office staff to announce that the deli delivery has arrived for lunch. Speaking of email etiquette, this is pretty irresponsible, as only 10% of staff are interested in the delivery. If you’re not one of them, create a rule that removes it from your inbox and you’ll never see it again.It seems like a tiny effort to delete an email every day, but those clicks–and the irritation they engender–add up. Also create rules for any bacn that you want to read eventually, but are not going to deal with immediately. This also goes for email lists and email messages sent to work groups which aren’t essential for you to immediately read. Filters are a key aspect to what separate email experts from email noobs.
- Do you really need folders or labels? Assuming their email software’s search works well, I discourage people from using email folders or labels unless they absolutely need them. I can search for and find an email 95% of the time. That 5% isn’t worth manually sorting and filing email messages every day.
- If you’re writing more than 200 words, it’s probably faster to just call. If you need a record of the communication or feedback from more than one person, then author a document in a collaborative tool like Google Drive so that it’s easier for people to collaborate and comment on it.
- Trust the algorithms. As far as I can tell, we’ve largely defeated email spam. I almost never get email messages from Nigerian princes or erection pill purveyors in my inbox anymore. Likewise, you can begin to trust tools that will do more filtering for you. Gmail seems to be pretty good at sorting by importance these days, and I also use SmartLabels from Gmail Labs to filter my inbox. More than one colleague loves SaneBox, though they’ve been unable to convince me that it’s much better than what Gmail offers.
There are loads of other tips, tricks and tools that will help you manage email, but these are the ones I use on a daily basis.
In truth, though, the essential quality of good email management is discipline: to process email religiously and to adhere to the best practices you discover. I find that email is the first thing that gets abandoned when I get busy, which is ironic, as it’s critical to managing and resolving that busyness.