Are you an email hoarder? Even people with otherwise good organizational skills can easily lose control of their in boxes. The goal of ‘inbox zero’ might sound impossible with the high volume of business that comes through email. It’s not.
Once you change the way you use email, a clean, uncluttered inbox is simple to maintain. Making those change will increase your organization, thereby increasing your productivity.
Let’s start off with what your inbox is not:
- It’s not a chat application. If you want to go back and forth with someone in a real time, use text, Skype, or phone.
- It’s not a Rolodex. Don’t keep emails just because the sender puts contact info in his signature. Save phone numbers, addresses, and any other important information to Contacts.
- It’s not a to-do list. Your inbox is not an efficient tool for managing workflow. Instead, use a free web tool like Workflowy or Evernote.
- It’s not an archive. Your email host’s Archive is the archive — use it.
- It’s not a garbage bin. Tabbed inboxes such a Gmail’s make it easy to allow junk to pile up, since it’s out of the way of your primary emails. If you check social media and promotional tabs, delete the emails when you’re done.
Basic Management Strategies
As a business owner (or even a person who uses email for work in any capacity), you should have separate emails for work and personal life. During your work hours, only check your work email, and turn off any email alerts for your personal email.
“Turning off” personal email during work hours cuts back on distraction, which goes a long way in helping you increase productivity.
If family or a friend needs to contact you urgently, they will phone you. Don’t check your work email frequently throughout the day, either.
Not only does this waste time and cause distraction, it leads to cluttered in boxes, because you’re more likely to check and email and leave it in the inbox for later. And less likely to take the time to archive or delete messages you’re done with.
Scheduling Email Time
When you set aside a couple of set times a day to deal with email, it puts the focus there when it should be, and allows you to focus on other things with the rest of your time.
Choose a time in the morning and a time in the afternoon. Or, if you deal with many work emails, set a time first thing in the morning, after lunch, and at the end of the day.
Allot enough time to read new emails, reply to each one, if applicable, and either archive or delete each one.
If an email is part of an ongoing project, move it to an application like Evernote, where you can keep all of the project info in once place.
Avoid long email threads. If you need to go back and forth on a project, take it to another platform.
If your client or project partner prefers to communicate by email, avoid pointless messages. A quick “Thanks” or “Got it” is a reasonable confirmation of receipt.
Responding with “You’re welcome” adds nothing to the exchange but clutter.
Reducing Incoming Emails
Almost everyone gets emails that are automated. Usually when you make a purchase, you’re added to an email list. Bank statement links, payment reminders and confirmations, and Google Alerts are among the types of automated emails you expect and want, but they’re not things you need to keep in your inbox.
A message from your bank that your statement is ready not information with value after you’ve seen it. The actual information is on the bank’s website, and once you’ve been informed that it’s there, the message should be deleted.
Payment information is usually kept on a website (like Paypal or Freshbooks) as well, but if you’re dealing with emailed invoices directly with clients, they should be archived.
Anything that is not important, even for the few seconds it takes for you to see the message, should not make its way to your inbox. Easier said than done!
While you may not be able to achieve zero unimportant email in your work inbox, you can cut it back greatly using the free tool Unroll.me.
In about 2 minutes, it scans your connected email account and lists all of the email lists you’re subscribed to.
You might be surprised at how many lists come up. Unroll.me makes it very easy to unsubscibe (just click the button next to each list), and even blocks any future emails that are sent before the actual unsubscribe process is completed.
It’s a good idea to check Unroll.me once a month for unwanted mailing lists. Once you complete your first cleaning, it gives you the option to receive emails from Unroll.me as a reminder to do a check at the frequency you choose.
(Note: While Unroll.me is a free tool, after the first five unsubs you’ll have to share an Unroll.me link on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. This tool is useful enough that’s it’s worth sharing, and after you’ve done it, you can unsub as many lists as you want.)
Filters help auto-sort your emails as they come in, making it easy to keep track of your most important emails. Most email programs have filtering.
With Gmail, click on Settings in the dropdown that opens when you click the gear near your user icon. In Settings, click the Filter tab.
You can tell Gmail to filter emails by sender, subject, and/or keywords.
Once that is set, you can choose to automatically archive certain emails (skipping the inbox altogether), label them so they are sent to a certain folder, forward them to another email, star it, mark it important, or automatically delete it.
Automate Your Inbox
If you’ve ever lost track of an email or forgot about it during the course of a busy day, the Boomerang extension for Gmail is a handy organizational tool that adds loads of functionality to Gmail:
- Return conversation to Inbox allows you to resend an email to yourself at a specified time, preventing conversations from getting buried under new emails.
- Send later allows you to write an email now and schedule it to send at a later time. This feature is great if you work with clients in different time zones, or if you’re a night owl, but want your message to arrive during work hours.
- Track responses, and receive a reminder to follow-up if you haven’t received one.
- Send recurring messages
- Review receipts of your sent emails with information on whether they were opened and if any links inside were clicked.
Autoreply (called Vacation Responder in Gmail) helps to prevent clutter when you’re not checking your work emails, and makes it clear that you’re not ignoring your emails.
Don’t just use this built-in feature when you’re on Vacation.
If you only check your email once or twice a day, you should use it daily, turning it on during your “no email” hours with a message explaining that you check your email at a specific time every day (and say the time), and that your will respond then.
You may choose to include your phone number in case of an urgent situation — most people will not call unless it’s absolutely necessary.
If you don’t work on weekends, it’s a good idea to create a weekend autoreply as well.
To set up autoreply, go to Settings in Gmail. On the General tab, scroll all the way down to “Vacation Responder.”
You can turn it on and off as necessary, or leave it on. It will only send the response once every four days when someone sends you multiple emails.
Your email program allows you to do basic management of contacts, including sorting and filtering.
But if you have a large client base and/or list of leads, you might want to step it up with a CRM like Insightly, which allows you to track your relationship with clients and see how they relate to other contacts.
This powerful tool is free for up to two users, and is invaluable for small business owners. Once you’ve organized your email to inbox zero, you’ll never want to look at a cluttered inbox again.
Do you have total control of your inbox? Share your tips and tricks in the comments!
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