If you want to be productive you need to be extremely good at handling and managing your email inbox.
While there are many ways to deal with email overload, one tactic has made the biggest difference for me and for all the people I’ve shared it with.
Learn How To Process Emails
Notice I did not say learn how to check your email, I said how to process your emails.
Getting into the habit of processing emails as soon as you open them is my single best weapon when fighting the never-ending war with email.
What does “processing” emails mean?
It means that as soon as you open an email and read its content, you are going to take an action and do something with that email. You are not going to let it sit in your inbox, you are going to do one of the following:
Let’s face it, most of the emails we receive are pretty much useless, even if they come from a colleague, or family member. When you get such an email, just hit the delete button.
Some emails are just not actionable. For example, someone on your team informing you that a task has been completed successfully. This is just a small bit of information that you cannot do anything about and it is also not something worth saving for later reference so you can safely delete it.
Some emails are going to trigger an action that needs to be taken, but you might not be the best person for the job. In such cases all you can do is forward the email to the appropriate person.
If you need to follow up to see if the task was completed, set up a reminder for yourself on your calendar.
Once the email is forwarded, you can either delete it, or archive it for future reference.
Some emails are going to require you to reply back to the sender. If you can keep it short and concise (under 5 sentences), go ahead and reply to the email immediately.
If the email requires a longer reply and you currently don’t have the time, use a free services called Follow Up Then. Just forward the email you need to reply to to firstname.lastname@example.org (or substitute with 6pm@ / monday@ / 15 minutes@, or whatever time works best for you) and you’ll get that same email back when you can actually reply to it. This takes the email out of the inbox, but saves you the time and effort to create a task on your to-do list, or an action on your calendar. All you are doing is literally hitting the snooze button on that email so you can take care of it at a later point in time.
Keep your emails short and to the point. If the person wrote you 3 paragraphs, but you can answer in only 3 sentences, that is perfectly fine. Don’t feel like you need to reciprocate in length, or in detail.
Tip: go to 3 sentences, copy their email signature and start using it to let people know that you are taking a stand against email overload and that is why you are keeping your replies short.
If an email requires you to do something you have two choices:
1) Like with replying, if it takes you only a couple of minutes to do it, go ahead and do it right away
2) If it will take you longer than a couple of minutes, create a task on your calendar, or in your to-do list
Once you’ve completed either of the above choices, delete or archive the email.
Some emails will just contain information that is not actionable, but you want to keep for future reference (e.g paid bills, payment conformations, etc). Such emails you should just archive even without reading, especially if you get the same email each and every month.
Avoid the creation of folders to hold the different types of emails. Most email systems have an extremely good search function so don’t complicate your processing system by taking 3 minutes to decide in which of the 57 folders you created to place this email in. Keep it simple.
Over to you now
That’s it, 5 options total. If you check your inbox and open each email with the mindset that you can only do one of the above, you are going to start zipping through the mountain of messages much faster.
Wanna go extreme? Use this method (Gmail users only). This little hack will keep only unread messages in your inbox. Once you open an email, you are forced to do something with it or that email is gone.
Start processing your emails using only the above 5 options. It will take some time to create this new habit (usually 10 days to get used to it and 30 to get really good at it), but if you want to learn how to handle email more efficiently, this is the way to do it.
What other tactics do you use to keep your email inbox clean? Share in the comment section below: