Before the advent of computers and the internet, getting control of the “paper tiger” was a common topic of conversation, both in the home as well as in the office. While paper is still an issue, most of us are distracted by a new predator that stalks us: the never-ending stream of email. Properly dealing with an overflowing email inbox is easy to put off until another day, because, unlike paper, it doesn’t create a physical mess that is hard to ignore, but it will render email much less useful, and in the long run it can wreak havoc on your productivity.
For email to be an effective work tool, your goal should be zero unread messages by the end of each workday.
For some people who have an excess of 1,000 unread messages in their inbox at any given moment, this may seem unattainable, but “inbox zero” is achievable with a little work. It will take more than one clean-up session and it requires ongoing discipline to maintain, but the results are worth the effort. It also takes some amount of ruthless dedication focused on deleting messages that you haven’t read and probably never will. With this in mind, it is okay to leave some messages in an unread state, especially if they can’t be dealt with at that moment.
The “unread” status of an email is a marker for what needs to be handled every time you read your email.
With these two concepts in mind, here are five things you can do to achieve this objective:
- Set aside time during the work week for email “housekeeping”. Block out the time on your calendar if you have to, and if your schedule allows it, make it the same time each day. Different times of day and various amounts of time will work for different people, depending on your average email volume. If your load is heavy, you may want to consider bracketing your day with 30-minute sessions. Focus purely on email. Seclude yourself – close your door, put on headphones, forward your phone to voicemail, etc. – and ignore those other distractions.
- Set up automatic rules or filters to process non–urgent emails. This could be anything from system generated emails from various workflow platforms, receipts from online purchases, newsletters that you do plan to read (but see item #3), or mandatory distribution lists (some of this is unavoidable if you are in a supervisory position). You could even go so far as to automatically delete emails that you can’t avoid receiving and don’t necessarily need to read, such as automated responses, or out-of-office messages from folks who use it even when they are only out for the day or weekend. The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of emails you have to manually process during your scheduled email sessions.
- Unsubscribe from all those mailing lists. Yes, I know they are full of information and relevant to your interests, but having them pile up unread, week after week, is the digital equivalent of hoarding. If they were important to your job, they wouldn’t be contributing to an unread Mount Everest. If your unread count on any given list exceeds 5 or more, you are not likely to ever catch up, so delete them, and seriously consider canceling your subscription. It’s likely the list maintains an online archive in case you ever need to research something, so not getting it in email does not equal knowledge lost forever. At minimum use #2 to get them out of the way of item #1, and set up another rule to auto-delete after a certain amount of time.
- Separate work and personal email. Before the advent of mobile devices and webmail, this wasn’t too hard to ensure, as many companies just disallowed access to personal email. In today’s work environments, personal emails are literally a swipe or two away. Aside from obvious safety and security reasons (opening a strange email from a Facebook friend on your work computer is not a good idea!), disciplining yourself to not check personal email during work hours, and vice versa, will help keep you focused when working, and allow you to relax when you are not.
- Delete. Empty your trash can. The trash can is not a storage folder, it’s meant as a short-term safeguard to retrieve emails you accidentally deleted. Just like cleaning up around the house, the last task you should be performing in your email housekeeping is emptying the trash. It will help keep your inbox to a manageable size which is still important, even in the days of seemingly unlimited mailbox storage. Also, delete everything you don’t need to keep, especially old newsletters, automated emails, etc. If you delete while you read, you’ll get to inbox zero faster than you might think. Regardless of how fast computers actually are, important information can be found much faster when your CPU doesn’t have to wade through thousands of useless emails.
We have the entirety of humanity’s knowledge at the tips of our fingers, but if it’s lost in an inbox with 3,000 unread messages, it’s not doing us much good. These five tips are only baby steps towards processing the fire hose of information that is today’s internet-connected work environments. Managing your email will allow you to spend more time on the other things that aren’t so easily corralled, such as building a successful business and leading a fulfilling and stress-free life.
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