New channels of communication are emerging at a rapid pace but despite this the humble email remains the top choice for most businesses. According to a report by The Radicati Group, in 2015 the number of business emails being sent and received per user per day totalled 122, excluding spam.
With a figure like that it is little wonder that some work inboxes may be bursting at the seams. So what can you do to get your email management under control and to start heading towards that inbox zero dream?
Starts by getting the right mindset
The term ‘inbox zero’ was coined by US productivity lifehacker Merlin Mann and he explains that it’s not referring to having no emails in your inbox, but instead means the amount of time your brain is in your inbox.
Reducing the amount of emails you have is never going to be easy – but it is doable. Making sure you have the right mindset is the important first step. You need to begin by thinking about how you are using your inbox. For example, is it acting as a to-do list? That is one of the biggest and most common mistakes that people make.
In many cases, there also won’t be any kind of system in place and the idea of using a system won’t even have been thought about!
Sound familiar? Then it’s time to take a step back, to look at how you are using your inbox and to see what steps you can take to streamline your usage.
Step 1 – Have a system
We’re not talking here about just figuring out how to empty your inbox. It is about thinking how you manage your projects and tasks. It takes a lot of trial and error to find a system that works well and is going to be the best fit. A good starting point is to just get stuck in – choose a task management system that appeals and give it a go. If you’re not sure where to start then have a look at David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) method, which is a great read and addresses why it is so important to have a system.
Step 2 – Refine the system
Remember, there is no ‘one system fits all’. Everyone is unique in how they best handle their daily tasks. A lot also depends on what your daily routine is like – for example, do you attend one meeting after another and have to make big decisions on your feet? Or do you sit in front of a screen all day? These are very different styles of working and will need different systems to reflect that.
Step 3 – Define your priorities
Effective task management is first and foremost about being able to successfully manage your priorities. You constantly need to decide what is important and what is not. Nobody ever has an empty to-do list, it’s a myth. The real question is which items on your list are truly important? Once you can decide that then sorting through your emails will become a lot easier.
Step 4 – Be ruthless
Brace yourself, it’s time to get ruthless and turn off email notifications. Just this small action can be a very powerful move towards dealing with emails when you are ready and have set aside time to do so – rather than being constantly interrupted by the incoming stream. Worried you’ll miss a very important email? There is no email in the world that cannot wait a couple of hours before being dealt with. If it’s urgent then you should be getting a call on the phone. It is up to you to educate the world around you about when and how you are available for emails, or for contact in general.
Many managers find setting “office hours” in which they are available to anyone who wants to contact them, can be helpful. They will communicate during those times well and then are strictly unavailable outside those hours.
Whatever the system is that you choose, be firm in its implementation and follow through. Do not make excuses and bend on your rules. They can have a tendency to drift more and more, then before you know it you’re back at square one feeling overwhelmed by the 1000 emails in your inbox.
Step 5 – Write down your plan
It’s all fine and well to say ‘I have a plan and this is how I’m going to do it’ but often a couple of days later it can be forgotten, or you get so wrapped up in work you may even forgot what your exact plans were. Write down how you plan to deal with your emails and have that next to your computer for quick reference. It takes considerable time to build a habit so you need to be persistent.
Here are some additional ideas to try
The 2 minute rule
One great tactic straight from the ‘Getting Things Done’ method is called the 2 minute rule. If you can reply to an email or deal with it within 2 minutes, then do it right away. Then archive it, or if you’re waiting for a response, store it for when you next need it in the future. One tool that can help with this is Boomerang. It offers clever ways to keep emails out of sight while you wait for an answer, and can you remind you if you don’t hear anything.
For emails that need to be actioned but will take more than 2 minutes to do, forward them to your task management system (if you don’t have one then check out Omnifocus, Teamwork, Asana, Basecamp or Trello). Just be aware, you’ll need to keep up to date with your task management system for this strategy to work. It does take time and effort initially, but it really is worth finding a working system.
Anything else either gets deleted or archived right away.
Get unsubscribing and turn off notifications
Unsubscribe regularly to newsletters you don’t read anymore. Don’t click on spam unless they make it difficult for you to unsubscribe. Also stop email notifications from all the social networks you’re part of, log onto them when you have the time and deal with any notifications then.
Emails for different purposes
Consider setting up different email accounts for different purposes. For example, have one email address that you only use for online forms, that way all the newsletters you end up subscribing to are neatly organised from the very beginning. Look at that email account only when you have time and are in the mood to read through them. If you work on large, long term projects then it may also be worth having a separate email for them as well.
Use email rules
There are lots of useful tools within email that are worth getting familiar with. Being able to set up rules is one of them. They can help you filter and sort your emails automatically. For example, have a folder in which all emails will be moved that have the word “invoice” or “order” or “payment” in their subject line. That way all transactional emails are automatically sorted and ready for you to action.
In a hurry? Quick hack for achieving inbox zero
If you don’t have a task management system in place and you’re using your inbox as a to-do list, then here is a simple way to make sure no emails fall through the cracks:
Leave only emails that still need to be actioned as unread. Make sure everything else gets marked read. Change your settings so every mail gets marked unread the moment you click on it.
If you’re on the go and just quickly check your emails and read something important but can’t action it right away, then you can put it back on unread. That way when you get back to your desk and you have time to action it, the emails that need immediate attention will stick out. Then every day in the evening make sure you delete or archive all the read messages. Start working using email rules and folders to start getting more organised.
More to come
Email as the channel of choice for businesses, appears to be here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future. In fact, researchers say the volume of business emails being sent and received is likely to keep increasing. So the problem of the overloaded inbox isn’t likely to be going away any day soon.
The good news is that having a system and sticking to it, and using all the tools you have at your fingertips to streamline your activity, can all help you achieve more effective email management. It’s about prioritising, removing the distractions and helping your brain to concentrate and be free from your inbox. Only then can you head towards inbox zero.