Taking control of your email

The ability to communicate via email has been part of our digital lives for 20 years now, and still remains as one of the most popular ways to communicate, especially for millennials.

I’ve previously written about not reading your emails until midday, but an overflowing inbox full of unprocessed emails can still be a major source of stress.

A method that I’ve used successfully is referred to as Inbox Zero,a term coined by writer and podcaster Merlin Mann. The name suggests that the ultimate goal is to keep your email inbox empty, but it’s more of a strategy for managing your emails on an ongoing basis.

Before we get into the specifics of how to use the Inbox Zero concept, there is one important thing that you need to incorporate into your life as you read emails.

You must judiciously unsubscribe to mailing lists, and keep on unsubscribing, especially if you make a lot of online purchases.

I personally found that until I got down to only being subscribed to less than a handful of mailing lists, that the volume of emails that arrived in my inbox each day was too intimidating. This meant that on some days I had hundreds of unread emails, without knowing which ones were important. For email to be a useful messaging tool, you need to reduce the number of worthless messages you receive, so unsubscribing is necessary.

Getting back to Inbox Zero, the basic strategy is that you will touch every email you receive, and make a quick decision about what to do with it at that point. The four key actions are Delete, Delegate, Defer, or Do. I also think you should include Unsubscribe as an additional action, for the reasons I’ve explained above.

Delete (or archive). Will you need to refer to this email again? If not, then delete it. My twist on this is not to delete anything actually, but to archive it so that you can always search for it later. If you use gmail, it is super easy to archive any message by selecting it and pressing ‘E’ on your keyboard.

Unsubscribe. You need to be brutal about what you accept into your inbox. If it is a marketing email, then it’s very likely that you don’t need it. I challenge you to keep less then 5 mailing list subscriptions. ( I have three and I’m considering dropping one. ) Often times gmail provides a handy unsubscribe link at the top of an email message, and there should also be a similar link at the bottom of the message. If you can’t find one, then use the mute button.

Delegate. Should you be handling this request? If not, then reply to let the sender know that you are handing this off to someone else, and at the same time loop in that person or another team to delegate it.

Defer. Do you need to respond on another day after you gather more information? Or will this email take longer than just 2-3 minutes to deal with? If so, then defer it to re-appear in your inbox using a tool like boomerang, or if you use gmail, use the new snooze feature.

Do. If you’ve gotten this far in the triage process then the emails you have left should only take 2 minutes or less to reply to. Send the reply, then archive it.

I have found by using the above process, along with delaying reading any email until 12pm, that I’ve greatly reduced the amount of time I spend processing emails. Plus, the important ones don’t get missed and are handled promptly.

Use this strategy daily, and get on with what’s most important.