Five steps to simplify your email inbox
Manage your unread email count with these five practical steps to reduce stress and reclaim time
What’s the unread email count looking like on your inbox — or inboxes — right now? A few, tens, hundreds, thousands? I suspect that, whatever it is, it’s more than you’d like it to be, and all of those words and images jumping up and down in cyberspace, demanding attention, are not conducive to a quiet mind. Psychologist Ron Friedman has explained that ‘each message represents another demand on your time and another decision you have to make’ so the higher the demands, the higher the stress you will be feeling. As a business, you should be writing messages that resonate with your target audience and expect that they might also be reclaiming some time from the email maelstrom with these practical steps.
1. Delete all the email newsletters from companies you haven’t bought a product or service from in the past year
Look at the top 20 unread emails in your inbox. How many of these are from companies you haven’t engaged with for over a year? Chances are, you won’t engage with those companies again because your tastes have changed or you use other platforms to interact with them, or you just buy less stuff. Open each email and click the ‘unsubscribe’ link at the bottom. What about the next 20? And the 20 after that? Next time an email comes in from a company, ask yourself the engagement question and if it’s been a year or more, unsubscribe.
2. Check and reply to emails three times a day
Why are you checking your emails on the loo? While you’re stirring that risotto? While you’re purportedly watching Game of Thrones? I’ll save the discussion on single-tasking for another day but, surprise surprise, checking your emails frequently is not good for you. In 2016, psychologists reported that constant email-checking was a ‘toxic source of stress’. Instead, check and reply to emails — particularly work emails — three times a day: when you start work, lunchtime, at the end of your working day. You will be more efficient at addressing and replying to them (hello, single-tasking) and less stressed in dealing with tricky missives because you won’t have been pulled away from another task. The world will not fall down and your clients will not disappear. Rather, in the case of the latter, they will be grateful for your thoughtfully crafted messages rather than on-the-fly quips that just clog up their own inboxes (see point five).
The best thing to do is to close down your email programs in between times and permanently turn off your mobile notifications. If it’s really, truly urgent, they’ll call.
3. Schedule regular appointments and store up discussion items
If I had a pound for every time I’ve received an email about something a couple of hours before I’m due to have a meeting with the sender I would be able to afford some really flashy animations for this article. An agenda is one thing; emailing to say ‘Remind me to tell you about xxx when we chat’ is quite another. For ongoing work projects I keep a rolling notes document, accessed by the entire team, into which we can feed agenda items and progress notes ahead of our next scheduled catch-up. Whenever something comes to one of us, we jot it down in the doc. Then we can deal with all the items efficiently in the time allotted to the meeting, rather than falling into the context-switching trap. Make sure these meetings are in everyone’s calendars so they have a marker to work towards, otherwise those emails will start creeping in again. This practice also saves another email on sending round an agenda, and another on minutes, and another on actions.
"The world will not fall down and your clients will not disappear. Rather, in the case of the latter, they will be grateful for your thoughtfully crafted messages rather than on-the-fly quips that just clog up their own inboxes."
4. Use tools such as Google Drive and Slack to collaborate on projects
I love Google Drive. Not only does it store documents, but it stores revisions of those documents and allows teams to collaborate easily with comments and task assignments. Yes, if someone tags you in a comment you will receive an email (unless you turn notifications off), but Google combines the comments into one message, which is much easier to digest and address than an email in which the sender needs to explain context and do all those niceties of asking how your weekend was. Microsoft does something similar. It’s truly brilliant for tackling the email beast, and particularly effective for assigning actions in those meeting notes that you are no longer sending around.
For informal, ongoing project conversations, try Slack. An instant messaging tool that allows you to create channels for projects, it’s an easy way to get a question answered from a team member or share a document for quick opinions. The informality and ongoing nature of the conversation mean it’s less of a stress inducer than email, and you can dip in and out according to your work schedule and focus.
5. Act in the spirit of best practice
Avoid those annoying behaviours that contribute to clogging up people’s inboxes: don’t send an email saying nothing more than ‘thank you’ to get the final word in a message chain, don’t email asking people to call you ‘asap’ (if they’re practising the behaviour of checking their email just three times a day, this is useless — you need to pick up the phone to them), don’t send three emails in a row as things come to you when one more thoughtfully crafted message would work better.
I'd love to know how you get on, and whether you have your own techniques for us to try out.