This is the second half in a series about email management. In the first, we talked about how to clear through the clutter and empty your inbox. If you haven’t done that yet, hard stop. Go back. Turn around and get that done. We don’t want you here.
If you HAVE emptied your inbox, way to go! Congrats on taking the first step toward getting your cyber shit together and keeping track of your communication. Take 5 and do something special for yourself. You’ve earned it.
Now that you’ve set aside some time and slimmed your inbox down to a beautiful (0), it’s time to keep it that way. I’ve never smoked, so I don’t feel entitled to use the smoking parallel, but inbox accumulation is a bad habit. If you’re really serious about taking this small step toward incredible productivity, you have to kick it just like any other bad habit. Mastering your email is a process. Be persistent, but be patient.
To give you a boost, here are my favorite power tips, best practices, and email mantras.
Tips and Best Practices
- Close the program: Part of achieving super efficiency is getting in the zone when you’re working. No multitasking. No distractions. These were both big struggles for me, because just a few years ago the ability to multitask was something you’d put on a resume. Also because I’m just a hugely distractable person.
Email notifications are a really easy distraction to make excuses for, too.
“But what if a client needs something from me immediately? What if my coworker asks me for something and I don’t get back quickly enough? What happens when I get a promo code or introductory offer that’s being made available to a few lucky participants and I have to sign up in the next 15 minutes to claim my free discovery workshop?”
I’ll go into more detail in following tips, but the bottom line is that email is NOT meant to be an immediate form of communication. Push notifications, alerts, beeps, dings, and buzzes should be turned off when you’re in work mode. Every time you get one, it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back into the swing of what you were working on. TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford that kind of drain on my calendar. Unless you are processing your inbox, checking on your Waiting folder, or retrieving tasks from the Action folder, your email program ought to be closed.
- Batching: Because your email program is never just open, you’ll need to have specific, dedicated time to each email task. These tasks are Inbox processing, checking on Waiting, and acting on Action. I have a slot on my calendar for Inbox processing every three business hours. I’ve found that this is the sweet spot for me. It’s often enough to catch anything urgent, but not so often that it wastes my time.
My Waiting folder only gets checked about once a day, since they’re non-urgent items*. My Action folder gets dealt with right along with my regular task list (which I keep on paper, by the way – more details on that in a future post). Task lists get assigned to my calendar by context. I block out time for administrative tasks, client tasks, and marketing or content creation tasks all separately. By batching similar items, you can get into the flow much quicker and knock more “to dos” off your plate in less time.
*If there IS an urgent item in my Waiting folder, it’s also on my calendar so that I’m reminded about it on the actual due date.
- DELETE DELETE DELETE: We’ve all had to do it. Somebody makes a fuss about information that was e-communicated months and months ago and you KNOW that you’re correct. Now you just have to prove it.You spend 45 minutes searching, sorting, and filtering through your email archive to no avail. There’s just too much there.Don’t get me wrong, archiving messages is better than leaving them in your inbox, but if they won’t be relevant 24 hours from now, delete them! Newsletter subscriptions, coupon codes, sales flyers, solicitation emails… the list goes on. When processing your inbox, be honest about whether you will ever need that email again. If the answer is no, don’t be a hoarder. Send it to the trash.
- 5 sentences: 5 Sentences is a practice hailed by the likes of Tim Ferriss and Guy Kawasaki. This is actually a practice that I do NOT use, but can see the value in. The idea is that too many people use email as an avenue for information-heavy messages. The system’s solution is to “Treat all email responses like SMS text messages, using a set number of letters per response. Since it’s too hard to count letters, we count sentences instead.” In theory, you can put a link to the 5 Sentences mantra in your email signature, keep all email responses to a minimum, and allow other communication methods to do the heavy lifting. Personally, I would rather spend 15 minutes writing a detailed instructional email than try to coordinate a phone call, wait for that person to get into their accounting software, stay on a silent line while they wait for their computer to reboot, etc. In other industries or services, I think this could be a hugely helpful tool. I, however, will keep on with the email mini-novels.
- Signature explanation: While my email signature does not contain the 5 Sentences link, it DOES contain a disclaimer. At the time of this writing, there is a sentence under my contact information which reads:
In the interest of efficiency, I sort and respond to emails at specific times throughout the day. If you ever have an urgent question or need to speak with me immediately, please give me a call at the office. Thanks!
You and I know that email isn’t immediate, but lots of other people haven’t gotten the memo. This ensures that, as long as someone has received an email from me at some point, they know that it’s not to be used for emergencies.
- Provide an alternative: Okay, so… email is closed, you’re batch processing your action folder at specific times throughout the day, you’ve turned off all notifications… how do people get a hold of you?? For clients and colleagues, there’s always the good old-fashioned phone call. I know texts and emails seem like the quicker way to get your point across, but many times it takes longer to complete a written conversation. This is particularly true when you’re trying to negotiate or make decisions, since it’s hard to read tone and context. As I mentioned above, I generally stick with emails for relaying information, but I never hire, fire, or make business deals via written medium.For co-workers, instant message systems are getting a lot smarter. There are even platforms built specifically for different types of teams in different industries. Text messages also work, but with as many mobile instant message platforms out there that make your conversations searchable, scalable, and broken down by topic, it’s really a no-brainer.
I hope some of these points can be put to good use as you continue the taming of your cyber inbox. What did I miss?