Despite the rumors of its demise, the truth is that email is still very much alive and kicking. In fact, a 2015 survey commissioned by Adobe found that we spend roughly 30 hours each week checking our email. That’s the equivalent of a demanding part-time job.
"Most people's email is just teeming with all the stuff they need to do," says Maura Thomas, founder of the productivity website RegainYourTime.com and author of Personal Productivity Secrets. The key to slaying the email dragon is multifaceted, but it really boils down to better email and workflow management.
The goal here isn’t necessarily "inbox zero." Instead, the experts advise adopting an array of useful tools and practices to help your email messaging system be a more efficient communication tool that doesn’t eat up most of your day. Try these tips.
The first step to making your inbox less overwhelming is to slow the flow of what’s coming in. That means unsubscribing to all of those newsletters, promotional email messages, and other non-essential email messages. Thomas uses SpamDrain. Other services like Unroll.me round up your promotional email messages and newsletters and let you unsubscribe in a single click. Those you want to keep are organized into a single email delivery each day.
To cut down on future junk email messages, establish an email address to use for subscriptions and online purchases.
Another way to cut email inflow is to work at a higher level to set policies within your organization, Thomas says. It seems basic, but a fair amount of "FYI" email messaging can be cut down by simply giving people guidelines about when they should copy team members and when it’s not necessary.
With increasing adoption of collaboration tools like Slack, HipChat, and even Google Documents, information exists in a place where people can easily access it instead of sending email inquiries, says Ron Webb, director of open standards research and information systems at the Houston-based American Productivity and Quality Center, an organization that helps companies get work done more efficiently and effectively. Using such tools when they are appropriate may cut down on inquiry emails since colleagues can simply refer to the collaboration tools, which are often searchable and have the latest version of documents and projects.
While traditional time-management experts tell you to handle correspondence once, Thomas advises doing a quick scan and sort. This allows you to pick out the most important messages and file or transfer those that need to be dealt with later when you have the time. She also encourages people to use the delete button with more abandon. What's the worst that could happen if you deleted that message? If the answer is, "Not much," out it goes.
How many times have you kept an email as a reminder of something you needed to do or someplace you needed to be? "For me, messages in the email inbox represent one thing: decisions I have not made," says time management consultant Frank Buck, author of Get Organized: Time Management for School Leaders.
Too many people don’t use the calendar and task functions available to them, which can cut the glut of email messages. If it’s a reminder about somewhere you need to be, note it in your calendar, Buck says. Simply drag the email to your calendar in Outlook, or use Gmail’s "More" option to "create an event." Similarly, use a web-based task manager to keep track of your to-dos. Once the email is logged, delete.
Yes, you should digitally file your email. Sometimes, messages can’t be dealt with right away or need to be kept for research or documentation purposes. Webb suggests looking at the type of email messages you get and why you need to keep them. Then, create a filing system that works for you. It may be as simple as having broad message categories such as department, group, action items, etc. Or you can create a more detailed system that files by project name or subject area.
Need to keep the email as part of a paper trail? Use your email service’s archive function, which will take it out of your inbox, but will still leave it accessible to you, he says.