Are you overwhelmed by email? Over the past twenty years, email has become a staple way for us to communicate. But many of us feel like we’re drowning in it. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let me throw you eight lifelines that have saved me from drowning in it.
1. Check Email Only Twice a Day
Normally, I check my emails at around 10:30am and 4:00pm every day. These times are scheduled into my working day. This means I can focus on important work first thing before being hijacked by anything “urgent” in my email inbox. It also means I am not constantly toggling between checking emails and getting work done. Your emails are a notorious distraction from getting things done!
2. Make Mail Rules Your Friend
I’ve set up my email system (currently IBM Lotus Notes used by The Salvation Army in the UK) to filter emails for me using Mail Rules, so that they are not all in my inbox. Here are my most important filters:
- All marketing-type emails are filtered to a folder called Bacn (like Spam, but I’m actually happy to receive them!). Thanks to Andrew Jacobs on Twitter I now do this by creating a rule telling the system to move all emails containing the word unsubscribe to that folder. Before reading a recent tweet from Andrew, I used to create a separate rule for each and every newsletter email address and/or domain. His method is much quicker.
- All emails I am CC’s or BCC’d go to a folder called CC Mail. I then check this only once a day (usually during my 4pm check) as these emails are likely to be less important or urgent than those that address me directly.
- I ask the system to move all email receipts (I like to keep a record of when my emails were opened) to a folder called Receipts.
- When the season I am in demands, I also set up rules to move emails connected to certain types of work into separate folders. For example, in my current ministry, I could be overwhelmed by finance administration. I have therefore set up a folder for this, and created rules to move certain emails (from certain senders or with certain subject lines) into that folder. That enables me to check the emails in that folder on my terms rather than having to deal with them in my inbox.
3. Get to Inbox Zero Every Day
Impossible! Not if you follow my advice in this post. You should aim to deal with each email only once, that will help you get to Inbox Zero. Here’s how I do this:
- If an email doesn’t need a response, then I archive it or delete it.
- I am ruthless about unsubscribing from everything I can.
- If an email can be responded to in under two minutes, I do it there and then, and then archive or delete it.
- If an email needs a longer response I forward it to my Task Manager (currently OmniFocus for Mac, which gives me a unique forwarding email address that ensures all emails I send to it get placed in my task list) and then I move that email to one of two folders in my email system: Action Support (meaning an email I need to action at a later date) or For Discussion (I need to discuss the contents of the email with someone who I will meet at a later date). I archive or delete the emails from those folders once I am prompted to deal with them by OmniFocus.
I go through this routine with my inbox every time I check my email (twice a day). I will do the same (once a day) with those in my CC Mail inbox and with my Bacn and other folders less frequently. These four actions allow me to get to Inbox Zero every day.
4. Push Email to Only One Mobile Device
I used to be in a situation where an email would arrive, ping my computer, my iPad and my iPhone all at the same time. Boy, was I stressed! First of all, turn all notifications off on all devices. If you are serious about only checking your email twice a day, then you don’t need to be notified the moment they arrive. Then have your work email on only one device. I have them only on my iPad and despite the fact it’s available, I don’t ask it to push my emails (i.e. download them as soon as they arrive). I have set it to manual, so that emails only download when I open the Apple Mail app. I don’t tend to pick my iPad up as often as my iPhone (so I avoid some of the temptation to check my emails), but it is still available if I am away from my computer and need to deal with an email urgently.
5. Don’t Reply to All Emails
I find this one really hard, because it seems discourteous. But if an email is an information only email, you do not need to respond by thanking the person for sending the email to you. It simply doubles the amount of email traffic. Remember too that email is not a chat system (again I am worse at this than I’d like to think). Banter backwards and forwards between someone who has sent you an email isn’t very productive! If you want banter, pick the phone up to them instead – it will be quicker in the long run.
6. Use Templates
Do you find yourself sending the same emails over and over again? For example, I often send emails to our Accounts Payable department attaching invoices to be paid. Or, I am often asked by members of the public where they can donate goods to The Salvation Army. I have templates for these kinds of emails. You can create actual email templates and save them in your Drafts folder or a specific folder for this purpose, or like me, you can set up keyboard shortcuts/snippets (I use aText on my Macs) to populate an email as appropriate. It saves me so much time!
7. Send Only Short Emails
OK. Confession time. Writing this post has reminded me of this principle, that I have let slip. The military have a term: BLUF. It means, Bottom Line Up Front. In other words, start every email message with your request at the beginning rather than burying it in the middle or building up to it at the end. Make your request, and then explain why you are making it, if you need to. Keep the explanation short. Your recipients will thank you!
8. Think About Whether Email is the Best Communication Medium to Use
Email is so integral to our communication these days, we often use it without thinking. Force yourself to think about whether email is the best way of communicating in each situation. Here are some examples:
- Don’t use email to schedule a meeting. It often means a shed load of emails going back and forth until the attendees settle on a date everyone can attend. If it’s a meeting with one or two people, pick up the phone. If it’s a group of people, consider using an app like Doodle.
- If the subject needs a full (and let’s face it, long-winded) explanation, then pick up the phone or see the person face to face.
- If it’s urgent, use the phone.
- If it’s banter or interactive, use instant messaging.
- Is it a serious issue? Deal with these face to face (or by phone if the person is unwilling to meet).
- Are you sending positive feedback? A handwritten note will be more special to the recipient.
I am passionate about leaders (especially spiritual leaders) being as productive and effective as possible. Your ministry will have all the more impact if you can deal with administration efficiently and effectively. Now go get that inbox to zero!
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