1000 Messages, Oh My! 5 Tips for Managing Your Email Inbox

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We’ve all heard about people with email inboxes overflowing with thousands – yes, thousands – of emails, and we probably can all agree it’s not an efficient way to conduct business.

That said, email is one of those insidious things. It can sneak up on you. It appears to multiply overnight. But unlike traditional snail mail, it’s easy to avoid noticing a burgeoning inbox (whereas 1000 pieces of snail mail in an office would be hard to ignore).

Too much email in an inbox, especially if you’re using a program like Outlook, can slow things down. It can make it hard to find the important messages. And subconsciously, it might even affect our productivity.

So let’s make a pact: together, let’s reclaim our inboxes. Here are five tips for doing just that.

1. Have a strategy for managing email…and stick to it! Let’s assume that your inbox doesn’t have thousands of emails in it and, instead, maybe just a few hundred. If you do have thousands, we still recommend implementing the following strategy, but only after you decide to take the current emails and save them in a folder (name it “saved emails”). You’ll start with a new, shiny, EMPTY inbox. From there, the goal will be to follow the strategy below.

The process for keeping an inbox manageable involves taking an immediate three-step action: read, respond (if necessary), file or delete.

Step #1: Read. If you read emails as they come in and then follow the next two steps as close to “right away” as possible, then you stand the best chance of keeping your email inbox at a manageable level. Now, we get it – we’re email users too, and we understand the daily message from Gizmodo or the sales alert for Target might not get read the minute it comes in. But it should get read (or filed or deleted) within 24 hours of receiving it. That’s the key. So, to recap: read all the most urgent, pressing emails right away. Then, for things like newsletters, blog subscriptions, or sales notices from Old Navy, you review and act on them within 24 hours.

Step #2: Respond. Not all emails need a response, of course. If an email doesn’t require your response, then there’s no need to keep it in your inbox. Move to step #3 and file it or delete it. If the email does require a response, then respond. You should respond to business correspondence in the same time frame you would a business call (within 24 hours at a maximum). The sooner you respond, however, the faster you get to move to step #3, which is where the magic happens.

Step #3: File or delete. Whether you use Outlook, Gmail, Hotmail, or something else, you will have the ability to create a filing system within the email program itself. This is the key to inbox success. Your filing system needn’t be overly complicated; just make sure it makes sense to YOU. That’s critical. Perhaps each customer has his/her own customer file under “Customers.” Perhaps each vendor has his or her own file under “Vendors.” Under “Networking,” you might have files for the local Chamber, BNI, and Rotary Club, and within each of those, you might have files for individual members. Do what makes sense. No one will judge this filing system – it’s yours and yours alone. But you have to do it.

If you don’t need the email, get rid of it. Don’t be afraid of the delete key. If you accidentally delete something, you can fetch it from your deleted items folder. Much of what we all receive on a daily basis can be deleted. So once you read an email and decide you don’t need to save it (or once you decide it’s not even worth reading), then delete it. Don’t think twice about it.

2. Find tools and apps that will help you. Just google “email productivity tools” and prepare to be wowed by what comes up. Don’t get carried away, however. It’s easy to think that tools will solve everything, but email still requires your oversight first and foremost. That said, here are two tools that we especially like:

  • For all users: Followupthen.com is a free service that allows you to “BCC” timeframe@followupthen.com (for example, 2days@followupthen.com), and it will email you a reminder after a specified time frame.
  • For Gmail users: Check out Boomerang for Gmail. It allows you to schedule emails, follow up on emails that you didn’t receive a response to, etc.

3. Be ruthless. You’ve probably heard stories about the executive whose vacation reply says he’s deleting all email received while he’s away and that if the email is important, the person should re-email him after he returns. That might sound extreme, but it certainly will tame the inbox. Some other “ruthless” measures you might want to consider:

  • Asking to be dropped from CC emails that you don’t need to be copied on, or instituting a policy where you encourage employees to avoid using CC unless absolutely necessary
  • Having a “talk” with friends or family members who continue to forward endless inane “joke” emails
  • Cutting down on your email subscriptions to things like stores and blogs

4. Do weekly or monthly pruning. Even email “masters” who usually maintain a healthy inbox need to occasionally stop and catch up on those lingering emails that were cast aside for one reason or another. Get in the habit of doing this weekly or monthly.

5. Hire a pro. If you’re still struggling on your own (and especially if you’re one of those whose inboxes blossoms to 1000 emails in an eye blink), it might be time to bring in the big guns and hire a pro to guide you. Organizational consultants and productivity consultants are good phrases to search on in google. These folks might be able to help you in other areas of your business as well.

What do you think? Are we missing any important strategies or tips? Share in the comments, and, for fun, tell us how many emails you have in your inbox right now (we won’t judge). Go!

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One thought on “1000 Messages, Oh My! 5 Tips for Managing Your Email Inbox

  1. These are great tips! I also like visually bucketing emails by action (respond/skim) and topic. We’re building an app that does both, though figuring out the mobile views is trickier than desktop.

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