Are you overloaded by email? Do you dread opening your inbox in the morning for fear of the hundreds of new messages you got overnight?
You’re not alone.
I run a Web business. Much of our company’s business dealings are done via email. In fact, I often say our inboxes are our best source of new business. I and my team try our best to stay on top of emails, although sometimes it feels overwhelming.
We’ve had no choice but to come up with strategies to deal with emails. I’ve read Getting Things Done (“GTD”) by David Allen, and the entire series of articles by Merlin Mann about Inbox Zero.
I’ve learned a lot from both of these sources about handling email. But a zero inbox just isn’t practical for me, given the sheer volume of inquiries I get weekly—around 800. And GTD, while a great system, is something I’ve never been able to stick with religiously.
However, I have come up with my own system for dealing with emails, drawing on both the GTD and Inbox Zero techniques while adding a few tricks of my own plus good technology tools. I call it the COT system: Cut back, Organize, Triage.
The first step is to cut back on the number of emails you get. Try these four tips.
Unsubscribe. Every day you probably get dozens of emails you don’t read but automatically delete—from newsletters you subscribed to years ago or a company you downloaded a whitepaper from in 2008. Sure, it seems easier to just delete them, but it wears on you. Set aside 30 minutes one weekend to unsubscribe from those lists.
Use a social media management tool. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have all started sending copious emails. Use a good social media monitoring tool like Hootsuite, and you won’t need an email every time someone follows you. Unsubscribe from all but the most important social media emails (such as security alerts).
Be diligent about junk mail tagging. Most spam filters are pretty good with junk mail, but when the occasional junk piece gets through, don’t just delete it—use your email program’s features to mark it as junk so the system learns to automatically put it in your junk folder.
Use special purpose addresses. Ever need to download a white paper or do some other one-time activity that requires inputting your email? Then you get tons of spam from that company. Set up an email address you never check and use it for these types of things.
The above four techniques cut down my email volume initially by almost 25 percent. It took me a couple of hours, but the leverage was powerful—I estimate it has saved me dozens of hours of wasted time over the course of a year. And it has freed up my mind from clutter.
Okay, now it's time to organize the emails you do get.
Set up filters. Every email system offers some type of feature that lets you filter incoming emails based on characteristics such as sender or content. You can set up filters for key clients and vendors so you never miss an important email again.
Use tabs. If you use Gmail or Google Apps, take advantage of the new tabbed inbox system. I didn’t like it at first (and I still don’t like the way it filters some newsletters). But after a few days, I realized it kept my main inbox clearer. Just remember to check all the tabs periodically.
Forget manual foldering. Email search and desktop search have gotten so sophisticated that the old advice to put your email in folders after you deal with it now wastes more time than it saves. When typing in “Johnson proposal egg roll” can find that email you sent two years ago in 10 seconds, why bother?
Be ruthless about not opening unimportant emails, and responding smarter to those you do. Look, just because someone sent an email doesn’t mean you—personally—HAVE to drop everything to handle their need (unless they happen to be a client or stakeholder).
Stop the endless cycle. Someone sends you an email, you send them what they ask, they send a “thank you”—stop it there. The more you email people, the more they’ll email you, and the more email you’ll get.
Create templates. For frequently asked questions or emails you send out all the time, create templates (Gmail plugin Canned Responses is one tool that does this—and I love it!). You can shorten response time to seconds instead of minutes.
Get help. If you can afford an assistant (virtual or otherwise), filter and forward certain emails to your assistant and train him or her how to respond with templates.
Don’t respond at all. I know this will be controversial, and some will think it is rude. But if you are in a business where you get a lot of unsolicited emails, as I do, from people wanting something from you (such as PR pitches or vague partnership emails), is it wise to neglect your own business’s priorities just to handle those of someone else? My first priorities are to make sure my customers get served, my people get paid and my business is successful, not deal with the priorities of someone else. Scan the subject and if the email doesn’t instantly look valuable to you, don’t open it.
How do you handle email overload?
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