It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time not so long ago, when email was actually billed as a productivity tool. After all, these days, complaining about ballooning inboxes is a sure fire way to bond with a fellow professional, and obsessively clicking that refresh button is an even better way to procrastinate. But it doesn’t have to be that way, just as long as you keep a few key principles in mind.
1. Practice Some Form of Inbox Zero
First and foremost, you’ll see the most bang for you email buck by implementing some form of Inbox Zero. The basic idea here is listed right in the title: practitioners of this method will do whatever they can to keep that inbox devoid of all messages, no matter what the type. In this way, Inbox Zero embraces the idea of the Inbox as a centralized weighing station: requests for your attention come in and are immediately sent on to their proper destination. To achieve this, all email that comes through your inbox should be immediately responded to, added to a task list, forwarded, or filed away in the proper area. This will help relieve the stress of having unread messages, force you into prioritizing urgent responses, and clearly organize the tasks at hand.
2. Mute Threads
While reply all can be effective at looping in all necessary parties, they tend to veer off course quickly, becoming irrelevant to the majority of recipients or – even worse – a social distraction endlessly more fun than any work tasks at hand. Do yourself a favor and mute threads when they’re no longer applicable to you. They will still be there when you want to check in, without competing for your immediate attention at the top of your inbox. And do your friends and colleagues a favor: don’t send a mass email unless everyone on that list really needs to be included. Or, even better, use the bcc function, so everyone can receive the most crucial pieces of information without retaining the ability to spam.
3. Filters Are Your Friend
Along the same lines as muting, filters and labels can be effective methods for shutting out the noise, especially if you find yourself inundated with low-priority emails. If you don’t have any already, take a look through your inbox in search of themes of priorities. You may, for instance, want to automatically archive industry newletters you’ll want to read eventually but that don’t require your immediate attention, or to send a canned response to messages with a specified keyword. The big principle here is that you want to save all of your energy and brainpower for the most delicate and urgent replies, not waste it on the little stuff.
4. Organize Your Contacts
If you’re like most people, your method of organizing contacts can generally be described as “wingin’ it.” Sort your contacts with as many groups as you deem necessary, whether that’s one group for work and one group for funny memes or an entire ecosystem of groups for every new project. This will cut down on the amount of time you spend puzzling over who should be included on what, as well as any time you spend thinking about appropriate tone and content. Just load the contact group and type away.
5. Schedule (and Restrict) Email Checking Sessions
Whether you’re an avid email checker or you long for the days when paper memos ruled all, it’s hard to avoid the temptation of clicking on every new email that comes through. The problem is, even the lightest weight email requiring nothing more than a quick read and an archive break up concentration and flow, making whatever task you were working on more difficult and time consuming to complete than it really should be. Whenever you can, try to schedule email checking like you would any other task at the beginning, middle and end of your day or at regular office downtimes. You’ll speed through your responses when you check in batches, and you may even find some of those “urgent” tasks will have taken care of themselves in the hours that have elapsed. Try using an app like SelfControl or Freedom, which block access to email and web apps for up to eight hours at a time, if it’s all too difficult to resist on your own.
With these tips in hand, mastering your email inbox is definitely an accomplishable feat. There are many more strategies than just this, so if you enjoyed what you saw here, check out this email productivity guide, which has many other helpful resources. No matter what strategies you take, it’s important put email back in its place, moving it away from being priority central and back towards being the concentrated task it should be. Good luck!
Email photo courtesy of Shutterstock
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