It’s easy to suffer email overload with an Internet business.
This is when you spend the majority of your “work time,” answering pointless messages.
That’s why it’s important to have a plan that helps you managing email overload.
In today’s guest post, Alan gives a simple step-by-step solution for mastering your inbox.
What I like about this article is he gives a simple solution that anyone can implement. Use this plan and you’ll experience a dramatic increase in your productivity.
Take it away Alan…
For a lot of people these days, email is an integral part of their lives.
We can feel stressed out, overloaded or ‘swamped’ just purely on the basis of the number of messages we have in our email inbox. Do you ever get that? Whether the bulk of your emails are business related, personal or both combined, the strategies I share below will be just as relevant.
So, let’s start with a simple multi-choice style question to get us going and give us some context.
Q: When you get a new email, is your reaction:
- Excitement: “Oooooh I’ve got a new email!”
- Indifference: No particular feeling
- Depends upon the content: I usually open all emails and have a quick look to decide what to do with them
- Depends upon the sender & subject: I decide what to do with it depending upon who send it and what the subject heading is
- What is the best way to get this out of my inbox?
Before we go on let’s take a really quick look at each of these responses in a little more detail…
#1. Excitement: You may remember a time… but this feeling probably stopped a long time ago for most people. If not, and you get a lot of emails, that’s great but you’re probably often overwhelmed. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place – skip to the next section and read on…
#2. Indifference: It’s quite possible if you chose answer #2 that you let emails ‘pile up’ in your inbox until it feels unmanageable then you try and deal with them. The risk here is that the most important emails get lost in the ‘noise’ of all of the others.
#3. Depends upon the content: Apart from the extra time taken to check every email, if you’ve gone that far you probably also get ‘sucked in’ to reading more and more of the emails that grab your attention. This is the least time efficient approach and you probably very often feel like you’re playing catch-up.
#4. Depends upon the sender & subject: Most people probably do this or something similar. This can still be time consuming because you could still be letting the email be your boss rather than the other way around. You could miss important but inappropriately titled emails or important mails from people who usually send you irrelevant stuff.
#5. What is the best way to get this out of my inbox?: This, or a variation of it (the most efficient way, the quickest way, the safest way) depending upon your situation, is the answer I would hope you choose. If not now, then at least after reading this article. Don’t worry I’m going to show you how. If you answered anything but 5, please read on. If you answered 5, well done but read on anyway to see if, perhaps I can give you a strategy or two below to make you even more efficient.
Quick Note: From here on in, I’m going to move quite quickly through the concepts, mainly because I’m guessing Steve doesn’t like 5,000 word articles on his site. Each strategy below could very easily be an article in its own right. So I’m going to try and keep it brief, but if you want more on any of these concepts, please say so in the comments below and I’ll be more than happy to elaborate.
For each new mail that you get in your inbox, I’m going to ask you to make one of 3 simple choices. We want answer #5 from above so please note that each of these choices is a way to get the email out of your inbox. The choices are simply:
There are 2 types of Now emails. Either (1) they are urgent so you genuinely need to deal with them right away or (2) they’re not urgent but you definitely have the time to deal with them and either want to or it would just be quick and easy to deal with this mail right away.
Note: Not all urgent mails have to be Now mails. If something is urgent and needs 30 mins to deal with but you only have 15 minutes, what’s better: trying to deal with it in the 15 minutes you have now or dealing with it later in the day when you can give it the time and attention it really needs?
Once you have dealt with the Now email, you then remove it from your inbox and file it in the appropriate place.
All later emails are filed immediately. They are filed in the appropriate place to be looked at later.
Later could be in an hour, later in the day, at a specific time which you have allocated to look at that category (or folder) of emails where you place the mail, at a non-specific time because you have added the mail to a queue of messages to be looked at later.
You should have your own custom-made system that enables you to look at the right things at the right time. We’re going to look in more detail at ‘Later emails’ and how to design that system below.
There are also two types of Never emails – normal, one-off Never emails and what I’m going to call ‘Never again’ emails.
Never emails are emails you know you don’t need to look at so you can get these out of your inbox by filing them immediately in the appropriate place (e.g. Trash , Spam or an appropriately titled archive folder if you really like to keep everything just in case). Technically these could also be ‘probably Never’ emails but we’re dealing with them in the same way so they’re here.
So what do I mean by ‘Never again’ emails? These are mails you don’t want and you’ll never want from that sender, so rather than just filing (trashing) these, you also need to take the action to ‘unsubscribe’ or stop them at source. This is an important aspect of managing your emails which we’re also going to explore a little further below.
Now we’ll look at the mechanics of each of those choices, both in terms of streamlining the number of emails you get in the first place and then how to effectively manage the emails you do get. There are plenty more where these came from but for the sake of brevity we’ll stick with 6…
Stemming The Tide: Some Strategies To Streamline Received Emails
It’s really key to manage the ‘flow’ of emails hitting your inbox in the first instance. Here are 3 effective strategies to do that:
Strategy #1: Cut Out The Junk
These are the ‘Never again’ emails I referred to above – instead of continually trashing repeated mails from the same company that you never look at, unsubscribe from them.
If I find a mail without an unsubscribe link and I don’t want it, or the process to unsubscribe is difficult, that rings alarm bells with me and makes me even more determined to stop whoever is sending me these mails from sending me any more. Reply to the sender telling them you are having problems unsubscribing and ask them politely to help you.
Strategy #2: Get comfortable using RSS
RSS has been a revelation to me. I only discovered it recently. By all means keep a small selection of email subscriptions coming into your inbox, but for all those that you are just a little bit interested in, check if they have an RSS feed (they almost certainly will have) and subscribe to that instead.
Subscribe to the RSS feed and check you’re getting it with any one of a number of free RSS readers (use Google Reader to start with if you’re stuck, that’s what I use), then click the unsubscribe link in the latest email and unsubscribe yourself.
The great thing about using an RSS reader is that you can actually go and check all of the content from all of your feeds in one place at any time, rather than having these updates all jumbled up in your inbox.
Caveat: there is a difference between an email list and an RSS feed, so consider if you really want the content which is exclusive to the email newsletters before switching to RSS.
Strategy #3: Give Out Your Email Address Wisely
If you throw your business card around, say ‘email me’ all of the time and sign-up to every opt-in you’re vaguely interested in on the internet, then of course you are going to be getting too many emails.
Give out your email address wisely – consider when you do and when you don’t need emails. When you do sign up to an email offer be conscious that the marketer probably wants you on their list. If it’s to get a free offer (which marketers often use as ‘bait’) is it something you really need? (Of course you could always sign up to get the freebie and then unsubscribe but it wasn’t me that told you so… )
Strategies for Effective Email Management
Now that we’ve streamlined the emails we do get, here are 3 effective strategies for managing these:
Strategy #4: Create A Filing System With A Place For Everything (including ‘To-Do’ Folders)
When you get home from a big shop at the supermarket, do you just dump everything you bought in the front room and leave it all there? I’m guessing not. You put things away. The reason you can put things away very quickly is that everything has a place. Not only that but after you’ve put everything away, once you need something, I bet you know where to get it.
You need to do the exact same thing with your emails (or any digital content that you value for that matter). Having an appropriate place to file everything (usually a ‘folder’ for a lot of email clients or a ‘label’ if you’re using Gmail) makes it much easier to get it out of your inbox (for most email clients move or drag the mail to the appropriate folder, for Gmail assign the appropriate label and click ‘Archive’).
Make some of these folders ‘To-Do’ lists – this enables you to get back to things by category/project and if done properly is extremely efficient.
I’m trying to keep this as brief as possible so won’t go into too much detail here but currently I do different things on different days – Writing on Monday, Internet Business & Coaching on Tuesday, Real Estate/Property on Wednesday, Investment on Thursday – so I have a Writing To-Do list, a Business To-Do list, a Property To-Do list and an Investment To-Do list. I file things that hit my inbox very quickly and go through all of my property emails on property day (for example).
Obviously once you have dealt with a mail either from your inbox or from a To-Do folder, it should be labelled/filed in an appropriate place so you can find it any time you need it in the future.
Strategy #5: Keep Your Inbox Clear
We’ve talked about it a little already & this equates to number 5 in the multi-choice question at the beginning of this article.
Simply by being more efficient, this system actually gives you more time – it gives you the time to read every email that you get when or very soon after it arrives – because by cutting out the junk and streamlining your inbox, and also by giving yourself choices about how to deal with each email quickly and effectively, you have created some space for yourself to decide.
You should now be able to spot and deal with urgent mails right away and to really minimise the chance of missing anything because it got lost among the hundreds of mails you get and you just didn’t see it.
With this approach you’ll be looking at a lot of emails twice but in a very efficient way. A brief initial look which allows you to see if the email is urgent and deal with it if necessary, but otherwise tells you what to do with the email, where to file it and also lets you know what you have in your ‘to-do’ list for later and then a second look where you deal with the mail giving it the time and attention it needs.
Strategy #6: Have A Target Inbox Size: What Number Of Emails in Your Inbox Makes You Feel In Control?
What number of emails would you need to see in your Inbox at any one time to feel like you were completely on top of things?
My number is 10. This is the number I choose as my target to tell myself I’m done. I’m happy when my inbox has less than 10 emails in it. Or 10. But not more. Sure, this can shoot up dramatically. I could go into a meeting or even be away for a day and return to find that that 10 has become 20, 50 or 110, but that’s fine because I am able to get that back down to less than 10 very very quickly (without neglecting anything) using the methods I describe here.
10 is my number – your number could be whatever you feel comfortable with, whatever keeps you feeling in control – it could be 20, 50, it’s up to you to determine that, but for me, it’s 10.
I did mention above there were lots more where these came from and OK, I couldn’t resist. To give you an idea of some other things you could do really quickly here are some further considerations:
- #7 Don’t Procrastinate – this system requires action – don’t use if you file & forget
- #8 Set Aside Time To Manage Your Emails – block out time in your calendar
- #9 Using the To:, cc: and bcc: fields effectively helps
- #10 Manage Expectations – e.g. sometimes you can respond too quickly
- #11 Follow up with a phone call – used wisely can be very personable and effective
- #12 Communicating effectively can go a long, long way (see above)
- #13 For more effective filing, consider having a ‘follow-up action needed’ system
- #14 Use auto-filing for mails you just want to have access to but don’t need to see
- … (I’d better stop now what else can you think of?)
I’ve deliberately avoided talking about general communication principles just because this is a huge topic. If you do want to read more about effective communication you could read this article: How To Communicate Effectively. Obviously in addition to the above, communicating more effectively is one of the most fundamental things you can do to keep on top of any communication mechanisms, email included.
So Goodbye Email Overload… Now Who’s Boss?
I hope this helps you be the boss of your emails. If you want to discuss any of the above
further just let me know and I’ll be glad to help…
I hope this helps you be the boss of your emails. If you want to discuss any of the above further just let me know and I’ll be glad to help…
You can find Alan at Life’s Too Good, a blog about helping you gain more out of life and enjoy it to its fullest.
Update: Alan has gone above and beyond a normal guest post. In addition to this article, he’s also created video that walks you through the process of eliminating the overload in your email inbox:Take Action. Get Results.
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