If you feel email clutter has gotten worse, you’re right! Between seemingly endless thread messages copied and recopied to everyone but the nighttime janitorial staff, to emails that are just too long and cumbersome to understand on the first reading, your inbox is probably suffering from “email overload”—and so are you. Here is some guidance to help you tame your inbox, make more succinct points in your emails, and stop endless threaded messages.
The real danger of email is that it feels like work, yet you can spend all day on it and not get anything of value done because of email overload.
This isn’t a new topic and you’ve probably sat through enough “How To” workshops on managing email to be your own subject matter expert on the topic. Yet, while other parts of your life are adequately managed, we tend to neglect email—and it just keeps piling up.
There are several theories on how to increase your productivity via email. Inbox Zero, a Google Tech Show developed by writer and speaker Merlin Mann, claims that the number of emails in your inbox affects your sanity: “It’s not how many messages you have in your inbox but how much of your brain is in that inbox.”
Consider the following tips:
Prevent the email shuffle: Similar to the paper shuffle, the email shuffle occurs when you open an email and don’t act on it. To increase your productivity, try to act quickly on each email you get. Determine what action is required the first time you open it. If you can answer immediately, do so. If not, move it to a “Follow Up” folder.
- Get it out: Out of the inbox, that is. Once you have responded or decide how to respond, delete or file it for reference. Keeping it in the inbox adds to the overwhelming feeling of having 900 unread messages staring you in the face. Imagine a real mailbox crammed full of 900 envelopes.
- Keep it simple: Tools that enable you to create file folders in your email client are great for organization, but a complex structure can overcomplicate things. Come up with a simple file structure and use the search function to help find what you need. This will definitely save you time in the long run and you’ll be able to respond much more quickly if you get a phone call from a client or someone in your organization pertaining to something in an email.
- Filter it: Rules/filters and colors help manage email. Rules help sort out email, especially unwanted mail you just can’t seem to manage. This is great for spam messages because even the best spam filters won’t catch everything. Here, you can send messages to a pre-defined folder you can either read at your leisure or scan and delete This is handy for subscription-based content, for example, that you want to read at a later time. If you’re a “visual” person, color-coding messages helps organize your messages. You might use the same defined colors you use for your appointments.
- Manage your subscriptions: How many e-newsletters, product briefings or RSS feeds are you signed up for? Brutally review which ones are of value to you and unsubscribe to the ones that have little value.
Don’t become a slave to email! Schedule specific times each day to review your mail and stick to it—perhaps no more than four times daily. This might be very difficult for you at first, especially if you’re like Pavlov’s Dog and want to respond right away to something that comes in. You can also disable the popup and/or sound that tells you that you have a new email. Jumping back and forth between projects and email zaps your ability to focus.
Another trick is to log off of your email while you’re working on a deadline-oriented project or activity, or just don’t want have any interruptions. Liken this to someone knocking on your door and wanting to chat. If this were to occur and you were in the middle of a project, you would most likely (and politely) explain what you’re doing and ask the person to come back later.
Whether email clutter really bothers you really depends on your personality type and work style. Just because you have 500 messages in your inbox does not mean you aren’t productive. However, not taking control of your inbox can impede your ability to be an organized employee. Take some time to determine a system that will let you escape from email clutter!