A few years ago, increasingly frustrated with an inbox tsunami and feeling overwhelmed before I started each day, I decided one rainy Sunday morning to do something about it and take control of the situation.
Is this you? Then read on…
After some experimentation, a few things emerged that offered clarity, order and even calm. What was great about the research is that this state was achieved without too much effort on my part.
Sounds too good to be true?
The reality is that you need to understand how that email tsunami works in order to tackle it. Don’t feed the machine! Once you process the basic tenets, you can move forward with increased confidence, be more productive and have more time for your important and exciting projects.
Without much further ado, here are my tips and tricks for managing the overwhelm and getting control of your inbox:
1) Use Gmail or Google Apps
You need one central hub where you can organise and process the inbox automagically into some sense of order from the chaos. For years, I used Outlook until the central file got corrupted one day and my emails fell over and became inaccessible. Never again.
Now I use Gmail for all my personal emails across multiple different accounts and Google Apps ($50/year per account) to manage my business domain emails. It’s simple to use, extremely powerful and flexible. You can use it in a browser, in MacMail or on various mobile devices. This utility is key, especially since you can sync them in the cloud so everything is the same whichever device you use.
2) Use Gmail Labels to sort and organise your incoming messages
Labels are one of the coolest tricks hidden in Gmail. Suppose you set up an autoresponder on your blog or landing pages with different codes and receive alerts when someone signs up. Uh oh – that will clutter your inbox very quickly! As soon as I set up a new list, I immediately sign up myself to test that it works ok and wait for the email confirmation. Then I head over to Google Mail and create a rule based on the list keyword to move all the incoming email confirmations from my inbox to a subdirectory based on that campaign, like this…
First go to the individual message and click on the drag down toolbar at the far right – select Filter messages like this:
You don’t want to filter autoresponder messages by name, but by keyword…
I then put it in a label under my autoresponder. The main label holds emails from the company such as my monthly autoresponder bills and subdirectories are for different email campaigns. If you do this when you first sign up yourself, all future signups will show up there with a number to the side of them indicating how many have signed up.
And no emails clogging up your inbox… beautiful, simple, easy to do.
Rinse and repeat – you can do this for newsletters, bills, clients, friends etc – every category where you expect regular emails should be FILTERED and sorted. You can see the labels to the left and they will appear in bold when there is an unread message related to that category or subcategory. It also means you can CHOOSE if and when you want to open them.
It will take time to set up – the first time I did this took me a whole Sunday morning, for example, but thereafter, only no filtered emails appeared in my inbox. It’s much quicker to look at 20 new emails in an inbox each morning and decide to file/archive/delete/filter/respond than it is to sort out 30,000 emails all jumbled up.
3) Use Gmail Rules to star important messages
As you get comfy with using filters, there are some advanced tricks you can add. Using the filter above you can also STAR a message as well as assign a label to it. I use this for really important messages such as bills and invoices. To view them is as simple as clicking on the Starred category under Inbox and deciding if I want to look at that AT&T or credit card bill in more detail or not.
The critical thing here is ONLY assign stars to really important things or it will be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff.
4) Use Gmail Meter to find out who sends you too many messages
This tool is absolutely fabulous! Gmail Meter offers free statistics and charts to help you figure out where and when your emails are coming from. Here’s the topline stats from a relatively new Gmail account I have for gathering and reading newsletters, for example:
As you can see, I don’t reply to many emails in this account and there aren’t too many either. However, the data tells me that while I have organised the incoming mail into labels well, not too many of them have been archived yet and the inbox is also starting to swell so that will get added to my To-Do list this weekend. Having the discipline to do regular monthly or quarterly maintenance and tweaking your Filters will work wonders on keeping the well oiled machine running:
Archived emails can be easily retrieved using the search function. This feature allows you to keep your storage down and emails you don’t need out of sight for later retrieval. It works very well indeed and reduces unnecessary clutter.
5) If subscribed to newsletters you don’t read anymore, apply the law of two feet and Unsubscribe
This is a biggie. It’s ok to unsubscribe from boring or uninteresting newsletters. In fact, I actively encourage it.
A fast way to do this is to use the Filter function mentioned earlier based on people’s email address. Put them in a label associated with the subscription. If you notice you have 101 unread emails from that person, it’s time to unsubscribe. You really aren’t reading them and it’s electronic clutter. Unsubscribe and delete or archive the unread ones within that label at the press of a button.
6) Use the delete button liberally – if you don’t need it, get rid of it!
See above – once you have that many unread emails it’s time to be brave and Delete ALL after you have unsubscribed.
Don’t be a packrat and hoard them – many people are their own worse enemy with email overwhelm!
7) Don’t be afraid to archive messages – you can find them again with search
Ok so what if you aren’t brave or bold enough to delete that person’s newsletters? The next best thing is to select them all under that label and archive. You can find them again with search if they are important, but frankly, if you haven’t read any newsletter for 6 months, why are you collecting them?
8) Do NOT respond unless absolutely necessary!
Once you come to recognise the inbox as other people’s demand for your time and energy then you can get it working for you, rather than against you.
Many of us get emails that don’t require a response – if so, archive it or delete it. An FYI is literally just that – for your information only. No need to hit Reply to All and create more work, because the people in the distribution list will only want to respond too and before long, you have an ever growing email thread – that sucks your time and energy away from things you should be doing!
We’ve all been dragged into hasty email wars, right? Well, one thing I learned from only checking emails once or twice a day is that by the time I opened them in the evening 12 hours later, often the issue hd died down or resolved – it didn’t need anything from me. Delete or archive with impunity! Whew.
You will truly find it very liberating to hit delete or archive rather than responding to a trivial email once you create this habit.
9) Turn off notifications
This one is super important. If you have ADD or OCD, then those Growl alerts, musical pings or a big red button saying you’ve got mail will only trigger your buttons and make you open that mail.
STOP this now. Turn off notifications, sounds, distractions etc.
Train yourself to check email only a couple of times a day at selected times that are convenient for you. I usually do mine two or three times (morning, lunchtime and late evening) depending on how busy I am. Another related trick is not to have your email client open in the browser or an app unless it is one of those scheduled times. Nothing is that important. No one ever gets to their death bed thinking… I wish I’d spent more time answering emails. Seriously.
This is the hardest bad habit to kick, but once you do it, the impact on your productivity and mental state is enormous.
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