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If you listen to our podcast or read our articles (and you should), you know that I’m not a fan of the list post, but what the heck; I’m a sucker for trends. So forgive me for making yet another.
I got into a conversation recently with Tammie Rampley, Colleen Conger and Melanie Kissell who are each fans and contributors to the Web.Search.Social Podcast.
The question at hand was about effective email strategies.
I want to blend this with another conversation I had with a networking buddy on the subject of “keeping on top of email.”
Specifically, my buddy has a deep interest in knowing how I was able to post the words “Inbox Zero!” on my Facebook stream with such frequency. “You get more email than I do. How do you manage it all?”
The answer, it turns out, is simple: spend less time on email, but make that time smart.
So here for all my friends and colleagues is my definitive list of things to do to hit Inbox Zero every day.
Let’s ask ourselves why Inbox Zero? What does it matter if we have items in our mailbox or not? Well, it doesn’t. How many emails you have in your inbox isn’t as important as emails in your inbox that are out of control. That’s the key point. Not every email is equal. Not every email demands your time. And not every email requires an immediate action. With this thought in mind, let’s proceed.
#1. Organize Your Email Without Organizing Your Email
After using every email client software out there, I’ve come to rely on Gmail as my email reader of choice. It’s fast, easy and in the cloud so I can use it anywhere. Unlike Outlook, I don’t have a cached version on my desktop and have no need for crazy “check and sending” setups like POP or SMTP. Why? Well, because it’s not the 90s anymore.
Before I go on, please understand that my thoughts here can be adapted to any platform, but I’m going to proceed in the context of Gmail.
Gmail offers a variety of features that allow me to proactively control my messaging. The first control is parsing my email into logical categories. Gmail splits email into the following tabs: primary, social, promotions, updates and forums. It doesn’t matter what each of those means because you can control the flow to each tab and decide what each means in the context of your day to day activities.
This presents a first line of defense for your email in that you can focus on the primary tab more than the updates tab if you have decided that mail in your updates tab is less important.
Just this one act will save you a ton of time on your email activities.
I should mention that if you look back when Google released tabs in Gmail, i was one of those people that yelled from the mountain tops that tabs in Gmail was nothing short of Satan rising from the lake of fire and destroying mankind.
Yeah. Sorry about that. My bad. Tabs are great.
#2. Show Gmail How To Categorize Your Emails
If you get a bunch of emails from different people from the same organization, how cool would it be to have persistent one click access to those discussions? With Gmail that’s a snap. Simply write a rule that says “categorize anyone that sends me an email from this domain or matching these keywords with this label.” Now when people send you messages, you won’t need to categorize them manually and you’ll have a quick way to group messages logically.
If you communicate with a lot of people in the course of the day, this one bit can be a major time saver for you.
And sure, you can categorize your emails manually, but why do that when Gmail can do it for you?
#3. Follow The 2 Minute GTD Rule
Most emails only merit a quick response or are best to be delegated. If you scan through emails, you can clearly see if it has been sent to you or if you are simply being copied. This means that you will know if you need to take an action or if you simply need to scan it.
If you need to take an action, ask yourself these two questions: Can you complete the action in less than two minutes or can you delegate it? If the answer to either question is “yes,” do it right then and there and don’t let it eat another moment of your time.
If the answer is “no,” then move on. You want to sweep through your email first before deciding what to do with it.
#4. Limit Your Checking
If you got hung up on that list bit, it’s probably because you’re thinking that considering how many emails you get in a day, you’re going to be sweeping your inbox non stop and have no time for anything else. Fortunately I have a solution. Don’t check you email often. Here’s what I do.
I have disabled all notifications, dings and whistles on all of my email apps both desktop and mobile. I check my mail in the morning, sweep through it and then repeat that once during the afternoon and again at the end of the day.
The first time you do it, it will take forever, but once you get into a routine, you’ll breeze through it. The thing about checking email constantly is that it involves task switching.
You’re working on a thing and you hear your email chime so you switch your focus to your email. Task switching is known to have a decrease in productivity because the human brain is not designed to switch back and forth constantly. If you do this several times a day, you are essentially hemorrhaging productivity.
If you secure a block of dedicated time for email, then your brain can focus and do more with less time.
I get emails from my business, from Web.Search.Social, from Triberr, from Manhattan College and then from newsletters and updates as well as personal friends, family and colleagues. I give myself three 15 minute slots in the day and often, I only need two to end up at Inbox Zero at the end of the day.
If I can do it, you can too.
#5. It’s Not About Not Having Email
Inbox Zero is a great marketing term, but a terrible technically term because Inbox Zero doesn’t mean you don’t have email. It means that you don’t have email out of your control.
This is probably the most important part of this whole discussion and it amounts to essentially a cheat. At the end of every day, I have no emails in my inbox which means that I have attained Inbox Zero, but I still have emails that require my attention.
Remember earlier when we talked about sweeps and I mentioned that if you could take an action against an email in two minutes to do it right away?
Well, what if the action requires more than two minutes? What then?
There is a feature in Gmail called “starred” emails. When I am sweeping my emails, anything that requires time or attention gets starred, but then immediately gets archive out of my inbox. It’s gone from my primary email view, but it’s visible in the starred tab which is the one section of Gmail that I have not yet mentioned.
I used the starred feature as a way of telling myself “here’s stuff you need to get done.” But guess what? That doesn’t necessarily require time in front of my email client. So whatever action I need to take goes into an action item in a project or as a to-do. It no longer requires me to be tethered to the email software.
When I have finished that activity, action or to-do, I have the email waiting for me in the starred tab. At any point in time, I will have anywhere from a few to a dozen emails sitting there, but the key is that they are under control and not just floating, creating a backlog as more emails come it.
The key to Inbox Zero is organization, not action. This is the concept that you must accept in order to control the fiery dragon that is your inbox. Once you control your inbox, it is no longer unwieldy. And when it is no longer unwieldy, you’ll find yourself going through your tasks faster leaving you more time to contemplate the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Or of lesser import, spending time with your family.
My way may not fit you perfectly, but give it a shot and see how it works. Then adapt it to suit your needs. If you have success or failure with it, let me know.
Good luck to you and your inbox.