Most of us have a dysfunctional relationship with our email.
The average person sends 37 emails a day, according to the Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, but 75% of us consider our own inbox as "hostile," "boring," and a "waste of time," according to a study by Vision Critical, a community technology provider.
Is it possible that email is just a misunderstood workplace tool? Alexandra Samuel, author of Work Smarter, Rule Your Email, says yes and believes when it’s used properly, email can change your life for the good.
"If you want to have control over time and workday, you’re going to have to set limits on your email," says Samuel. "By defining filters and using some tools, you can achieve a dramatic gain on your time and control what you should read and when."
Controlling your email is like losing weight; you can add exercise into your lifestyle, but if you’re still eating doughnuts, the results won’t be long term, says Samuel. "At a certain point, you can only slim down your inbox if you’re willing to give up some degree of awareness," she says.
Instead of cleaning out your inbox once every few months, Samuel suggests taking 30 minutes to set up filters and alternate inboxes that will create a more manageable email system. For instructions, search "how to set up filters for [your email provider]".
You can also use a system that automatically does this for you, such as SaneBox or OtherInbox, but Samuel says creating your own custom set of email rules or filters and folders means you have one less account to manage.
She shares five tips for reducing the amount of email you need to read each day:
One of the easiest ways to lighten up your inbox is to sort out emails that aren’t vital, such as newsletters and daily deals. Do this by using your email program's filters and rules feature to sort emails that have any variant of an unsubscribe link in a separate folder, such as "to unsubscribe click" and "please unsubscribe."
"It’s easy for important messages to get lost in a sea of newsletters," says Samuel. "Filtering them into a separate folder allows you to focus on the messages that matter most while automatically storing others you can read later."
Face it, most emails on which you’re cc’d aren’t urgent. Set up another filter that puts those into separate folder called cc’s. You can create exceptions to this rule, such as emails from your CEO or partner or regarding an important project. Then be sure to check this folder every day or two, says Samuel.
Meeting-related messages can quickly fill your inbox, especially as people RSVP. Have all calendar requests and RSVPs (anything with an .ics file attached) filtered into a special folder. Then review your calendar—not your meeting invitation folder—once a day to spot any tentative meetings or appointments you need to accept, suggests Samuel. If additional information is needed, then refer to the meeting invitation.
"This reduced my email volume by half," says Samuel. "You can go right to your calendar and accept or decline invitations from there. It helps to see the invitation within the context of your calendar."
Samuel says a lot of us work from our inbox, using it as a task manager, but with the volume of messages, it can be easy to forget old tasks. Boomerang (a Gmail plug-in) and Followup.cc are two services that allow you to send yourself a reminder to follow up on an old email if you haven’t heard back.
"If you have a project where you are depending on hearing back from someone, this helps with the work flow," she says. You can also use it if you’re not ready to deal with email; it will remind you to reply at a later date.
If you’re waiting for an important email, it can be tempting to check your inbox every few minutes. Break the habit of obsessive email check-ins by setting up your mobile phone as a forwarding address. Then create a rule that will forward that email to you as a text message as soon as it arrives. (You can find the email address formula for major U.S. mobile providers here.)
"That way you can trust in your phone to alert you when it arrives, and stop checking your inbox," says Samuel.