How to take back control of your inbox

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I have let my email inbox get RIDICULOUSLY out of control over the past few months…

I gave up on achieving “inbox zero” a while ago, and instead try to keep it to a manageable level of read and unread emails that still require some type of action, tidying as I go, or doing a clean up every few days.

However after our recent travels, crazy end-of-year period, and now in holiday-mode, it was Out. Of. Control.

I’ve just finished sorting it out *high five!* and it’s now back to a respectable 20-odd emails that require action in the coming week.

I know that this is a problem that affects others, so I am sharing some of my approaches to managing your email (including major clean ups) and favourite resources.

Firstly, the big one:

Email is NOT your job.

I can’t recall where I first heard this, but it changed my life.

A lot of people I know spend a massive amount of time (throughout the day and night) checking and attending to their email, across multiple devices.

Yes, many of our emails are work-related, but the vast majority of us DO NOT get paid simply for handling our emails (otherwise, we would be rich!)

This doesn’t mean ignoring emails, but I have found it an incredibly useful mindset to keep me focused on DOING WHAT EARNS YOU THE MONEY!

Mind you, this is also why my inbox sometimes gets out of control, but in my defence, I’ld rather use my valuable and most alert and productive time doing awesome work, than sorting emails. Leave that for when you have spare time, and even are feeling a bit zonked. Filing emails can be mindless work, so use that tired time on this type of task.

Don’t attend to emails from oldest to newest

Earlier this year I read the 9 Rules for Emailing from Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

They are all useful, but the one that stood out most to me was: Handle email in LIFO order (Last In First Out). Sometimes the older stuff gets taken care of by someone else.

It’s easy to think we need to attend to the oldest items first, but if you have limited time, and your inbox is overflowing, tackle things from the top. When you get a chance to look down, you’ll often find that the older emails are no longer relevant.

If you handle email in L.I.F.O. order, sometimes the older stuff gets taken care of by itself. Click to Tweet

~ Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google

And it often does.

My top tips for attacking my inbox

As I said at the start of this post, I’ve just finished making my inbox look presentable again.

This is rather embarrassing to admit, but I had over 1,000 emails in my inbox, with hundreds of them still marked as unread.

This does not include those that get automagically marked as spam.

However I was able to sort those that needed keeping into their folders, archive others, and delete others in less than half an hour using this approach:

Sort the emails in your inbox by “from” rather than date.

This will group together emails from the same address, allowing for incredibly easy select of them all to move them to their project/client/topic folder, archive or delete.

It also highlights how many emails you may get from a particular user that are no longer relevant or useful… for example, an email subscription that no longer offers value.

Use this time to also unsubscribe from any subscriptions that may have reached their use by date.

It is SO much quicker than scrolling through them in date order.

Trust me.

Email etiquette

Finally, I know there are numerous articles about proper email etiquette out there, but I still feel compelled to share my top tips:

Use descriptive subject headings

This has a two-fold benefit of letting the recipient know exactly what your email is about, but also helps if you are searching for a particular email in the future.

My template for email subject headings is: {client name} : {project name} – {email topic}

Similarly to descriptive file name protocol, this approach assists both sender and recipient.

Continue the email thread

Yes it sometimes takes a few more seconds to find the last email and replying to it rather than beginning a new email, but if the email relates to an ongoing topic or project, continuing the email thread keeps the previous email content below, assisting with references to any previous information etc.

Make the purpose of the email clear

I’m the first to admit that I have a very direct approach to my emails, but if they are work-related, I like to make it easy for the recipient to understand what they are about, and what actions need to be taken.

I think that due to the written nature of email, some people try to overcompensate by being very conversational in emails, forcing the recipient to sift through (admittedly very pleasant words and observations) to find the point!

This doesn’t mean you can’t begin with a friendly opening line such as: How are you? / I hope this finds you well. / How about this weather!? depending on the relationship you have with the recipient, but don’t make them wonder what the email is about!

The template that works for me is:

  1. Salutation
  2. Personal observation (if relevant or appropriate)
  3. Information that the other person needs to know (making use of formatting such as sub-headings, bold, bullet lists etc if it helps clarify the content)
  4. Clear next actions required of the other person, and due dates if relevant
  5. Sign off

Does it need an email? Or would a telephone call be better…?

While I do use the “urgent” email message marker occasionally, it does make me laugh.

If an item is REALLY that urgent – pick up the phone and call them.

Or email AND call. Or send a follow up email if they don’t answer the phone.

While many of us (myself included) check emails throughout the day and night, don’t assume that we always will.

It’s often seen as the “fault” of the recipient if they don’t answer an urgent email, but the responsibility should be on the person providing the message in the first place, to get it to the recipient in the most appropriate manner.

And even when a matter might not be urgent, sometimes a phone call is more appropriate…

I’ll also admit that I much prefer written communication over the telephone, but the phone kicks ass for getting quick, easy answers to questions, or discussing complex, difficult or personal/emotional topics.

Then you can always send a follow up email “confirming what we recently discussed…” to create a paper trail.

 

They are my top tips for taking back control of your inbox – what else would you add?

Let me know in the comments!

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