You've Got Mail
I’d say most of us are guilty of it: checking our email continuously throughout the day, especially in the morning and late at night. Interesting fact here is that these are both the worst and most stressful habits of email according to a study about the pros and cons of email. Pushed email actually has a negative impact on both your work-life balance as well as your overall performance. The continuous distractions will keep you from reaching your state of flow. Where the constant push of emails is already problematic, the amount we receive can quickly escalate and become overwhelming. Where most career lions may have to rely on email, it definitely is one of the most frustrating things.
How can we manage our overwhelming and overflowing email boxes, mitigating the frustration and optimizing our performance? Here are some of the tips and tricks that I have collected from my research and own experience:
The Getting Things Done System
David Allen in his book Getting Things Done describes a simple system to help you take control of your mailbox. It involves five different folders in your mailbox.
- An inbox folder: A temporary staging area from which you handle emails that require less than two minutes, re-direct emails to other folders, or delete.
- An archive folder: This folder should contain all emails for which the answer to one of the following questions is yes; “Is this email something you must refer to later or is it something you may refer to later?”. With the search functionalities in your mailbox, there is no need to further archive these emails.
- An A-Z folder: To keep only those emails that you must refer to later and will need quick and repeated access to. It is basically a folder with sub-folders containing only those emails with top priority.
- An action folder: All actions that take more than two minutes should be moved to this folder. These should be added to your task list. However, do make sure that you assign a specific date, and time to them so that you action folder doesn’t grow out to become a can of worms. Allen suggests this folder should be emptied at least once a week.
- A waiting folder: Sometimes we are dependent on others and will have to wait to complete our action emails. These emails can be stored in this waiting folder, of which the size should also be kept to a manageable size. I also keep a list in Trello with a description of emails that I am awaiting a reply for, so that I can send reminders and don’t lose track of important issues.
Unless your job requires immediate responses, only check your email a few times a day. These checks should preferably be done at specific times that you can communicate in your auto-response messages. These can trigger people to contact you by phone for instance in case of urgent matters, that requires your attention sooner. As a result, you will minimize distractions by non-urgent matters.
Review emails in a thread
Most mailboxes allow you to group your emails by threads. I definitely have my emails sorted by conversation, which helps me quite a lot in reading email threads efficiently and effectively. As a result, I also don’t reply to an older email that excludes some information or recipients.
Unsubscribing from junk email
We are constantly asked to subscribe for emailing lists, for example when we pay for our online shopping or when we want access to free WiFi. Where we might want to read some of them, they end up taking up way too much of your attention and energy to process and maybe even delete. A handy and free tool to use for this is "unroll.me", which scans your mailbox and helps you unsubscribe effectively within minutes.
Using mailbox rules
Most mailboxes give you the opportunity to immediately send some emails to for instance a dedicated folder. These are great to store certain emails that you may want to review at times or keep for future reference, rather than filling up your inbox. Do try to remember that you have these rules and folders, because you may miss some information if you are not yet used to checking multiple folders.
Automatic sign offs
In order to reply to emails efficiently and handle your overwhelming mailbox with more ease, try having automatic signatures that you can easily add. These save you a lot time in the end and are super easy to add in the options section of your mailbox.
If your work requires pretty standard reply emails, you might even want to go as far as template emails. Putting them in your drafts or even having them as signatures will also be a great way to save time and focus on the important stuff.
Using a time limit
Yes, yes, yes, email is important. But for most of us, it is not always value adding. Make sure you only have dedicated time slots to do your email (for instance 15 minutes three times a day, apart from the work that emails generate), protecting you from going up in the email bubble. Again, we want to gain control over our mailbox. We can’t have our mailboxes rule us, if we want to run the world!
My job frequently requires immediate reaction to emails. Checking my emails on specific times a day is therefore not preferred. However, it definitely requires me to have an effective mailbox strategy to make sure all questions and issues are handled properly. This week I will be putting in place the getting things done system myself. All of the other tips are already great assets to my mailbox strategy and have definitely helped me keep things in order.
What is your experience with email? Is your mailbox overflowing too? Or do you have master skills that you can share? In case of the latter, don’t hesitate to share them in the comment section below.