I was on vacation for a few days recently missing two days of work. I returned to 123 emails, and this was after notifying coworkers I would be out of the office, using an out-of-office auto-reply and unsubscribing from as many unnecessary email lists as possible over the past several weeks. Email can be overwhelming, unproductive and cause employees to stress about returning from vacation or even lead them to checking work email while on vacation, just to keep up. However, with a system to manage email, it doesn’t have to be so overwhelming.
So for this blog post, I asked others about their best practices for managing their inbox. Do they set daily goals for the “inbox zero” goal of the ideal state of having zero emails in the inbox as often as possible or have other methods that have helped them tackle the beast that email has become?
Here’s the top 7 suggestions:
1. Handle each email just one time. “When I get an email, I may scan my inbox for an idea of the priority/urgency of an email,” said Joanne Young, MBA, PMP via LinkedIn. “If it is truly urgent, and is marked as such, I will usually try to handle it right away, and this involves addressing its content thoroughly in my response, research, or delegation to another person. That way, I know it has been handled, and it can be put in my ‘handled’ file.”
2. Set times throughout the day to check emails. “If email is given a slotted time, it does not interfere as much with productivity, because it is usually a slot of ‘free’ time that it is allocated, meaning that productive time is spent doing more productive things,” said Joanne Young, MBA, PMP via LinkedIn. “I have blocked out on my calendar three times in a day when I will review my Inbox for new mail. This way, I have set hours, and have been able to set expectations with others that all mail will be read and disposition handled by the end of the day.”
3. Reduce unnecessary emails. It is very easy to get added to email lists and quickly, you will discover that the bulk of your emails are from these email lists, not genuine emails from colleagues, friends or family. At one point, these emails were relevant but they can quickly take on a life of their own, overwhelming your inbox. “I take my name off email lists if they’re starting to send me too much,” said Lisa A. Nofzinger via LinkedIn.
4. Use alternate methods of communicating when possible. “Email encourages and promotes a ‘fire-and-forget’ culture of passing on responsibility and action,” said Paul Docherty via LinkedIn. “The key to effective corporate use of email is to break this culture and use email as a communication tool, not THE communication tool.” Using the phone instead of email can be the best option when an urgent response is needed. “If something is so urgent that it needs an urgent email, it would seem to me that the sender may even want to think twice about the email as such, and perhaps use it as a follow-up to a phone call, which will normally get immediate attention,“ said Joanne Young, MBA, PMP via LinkedIn.
5. Organize and sort using folders. “I have three folders (excluding the inbox which should always have less than 5 emails in it): Needs reply, awaiting response, archive,” said Simon Barker via LinkedIn. Upon receiving an email, Barker actions it immediately, reading and responding if possible, adding tasking emails to a to-do list and moving the email to the appropriate folder for managing as soon as possible. This helps him keep to his not-quite-as-strict 5 email inbox limit goal. “I also have folders for longer-term follow-up that help me manage the volume of input some days, and allows me to catch up on a later date if still relevant,” said Frits Bos, PMP via LinkedIn.
6. Handle it immediately. “If I get e-mail I instantly deal with it where possible, said Claire Wesley via LinkedIn. “And I deal with my e-mails on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. I hate having millions of e-mails in there!”
7. Minimize email use. “Don’t necessarily look at your emails outside of [your scheduled time] unless you are looking for or waiting for something important that you know is coming,” said Paul Docherty via LinkedIn. “Mobile email is incredibly destructive in this respect. The continual interruption, distraction and temptation can really destroy your productivity. If something is so important that it needs to be dealt with right away, then email is not the medium that should be used to get your attention. People should understand this.”
Several respondents also mentioned not accessing email regularly on mobile devices because it can interrupt productivity and interfere with your life outside of work. “I do not let my emails and smart phone saturated my life,” said Vernita Naylor via LinkedIn. “Life is too short and should be enjoyed as well.”
The underlying theme of all of the responses were to develop a system that works for you, your contacts and your company to maximize the efficiency of handling email. What works for some may not work for other. However, if you have a system in place and stick to it, chances are you will have a better handle of your email.
What has worked for you in managing your inbox?