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This article discusses six techniques for better email management. Whether you're working remotely or in the office, it's important to manage your inbox to improve productivity and enhance your well being.
When the first piece of electronic mail traveled from one MIT computer to another in 1965, it was a moment for cheers and high-fives.
Fast forward to 2022, and the notification of another email hitting your workplace inbox will likely make you groan and cringe. That’s not surprising, considering that 3.3 billion emails are sent worldwide daily, and the average worker receives 121 emails daily. In addition, people spend about five hours a day checking email.
In most workplaces, you’re expected to be working an eight-hour day; it’s insane that more than half of that day can be consumed by email. Each ping of your notifications or that number on your Gmail app on your phone can be anxiety-inducing at best and panic-inducing at worst.
Email is no longer a novelty, in fact, it can be a nightmare.
So it’s safe to say our honeymoon phase with email is over.
Ironically, a tool designed to make our lives easier with speedy and efficient communication can cause the opposite of keeping us distracted, unproductive, and frustrated. The onslaught of emails in our inboxes has serious implications for the workplace. One study revealed that 22% of remote workers are ready to quit due to the high volume of emails in their inboxes.
Whether your workplace is remote, in the office, or hybrid, it’s important to manage your inbox to improve productivity and enhance your well-being. The good news is that you can take several steps to keep your inbox in check and under control. Let’s dive into six techniques for better email management.
1. Be selective in reading and responding
You don’t need to read every email you receive and certainly don’t need to respond to all of them.
Prioritize your responses.
Identify which emails will make the most significant impact and which you should respond to immediately, such as one from an important client or your boss. You can use a time management matrix to help you prioritize emails according to their level of urgency: not important vs. important and not urgent vs. urgent.
Take a pass on some emails.
Resist feeling obligated to open every email. Sometimes you simply need to pass on responding to an email altogether and let the lack of a reply be the reply. Otherwise, you might spend most of the day on email rather than tackling more important work with a better ROI. For example, you might receive mass emails from your organization that don’t relate to your work. A quick skim of the sender or the subject line can give you enough info to hit “delete.”
2. Use time-based tactics
Setting up a consistent schedule for reviewing emails will help you set healthy parameters for email management.
Choose certain times of the day to check your email.
For instance, play around with different schedules rather than leave your inbox open to constantly ding away your attention throughout the day. For example, you might check work emails at 8 am, noon, and 4 pm. In the same way your meetings with supervisors have an agenda, make sure your email time has an agenda as well.
Use a timer to keep your email use in check.
Bolster the effectiveness of checking your email on a schedule by setting a time limit. This action will force you to focus quickly and prioritize the most important emails. When you’re in the beginning phases of using this technique, consider setting an actual timer and then stick to it.
Give yourself a few days to respond.
Whatever you don’t get to during your scheduled email time can wait until later. What about that twinge of guilt you feel if there are lingering messages in your inbox? That will fade over time once your schedule becomes habitual. Create a folder for those emails and work through them when you have more time. You may feel immediate relief when you move emails out of sight into a different folder.
3. Take a stand against unwanted emails and clutter
One goal with email management is to spend more time on the emails that matter and less time (or no time) on emails that suck productivity and waste time.
Commit to hitting “Unsubscribe.”
One study reveals that 32% of people who subscribe to emails find it easier to delete or ignore the email than unsubscribe. If you’re one of that 32%, it’s time to take action.
Take a few extra seconds to hit the “Unsubscribe” link found at the bottom of the email. You might have to hunt for the tiny lettering at the bottom, but the reward is the satisfaction of having fewer emails in the future.
You might have voluntarily signed up for different newsletters but find you never actually open and read them. That’s also a sign it’s time to unsubscribe. Signing up is not a lifelong commitment!
Take advantage of filters and organizational tools.
For example, you can use the “report spam” feature in Gmail to reduce the number of emails that sneak by. You can also block certain senders and use a productivity tool to unsubscribe from entire domains quickly. Split inboxes help you divide your inbox into different categories.
For example, the split inbox identifies emails sent from human to automated emails. You can customize your split inbox into four categories. This segmentation will allow you to move through emails by category, meaning you can move more quickly and focus.
4. Communicate your boundaries for email communication
One bold, brave move you can make is to go one step further by communicating your email boundaries to others. Initially, it could feel like you’re rocking the boat, but others might start a trend.
By establishing and then communicating your boundaries, you’re defending your productivity and ability to focus on your workday.
Establish your boundaries.
The accessibility of email makes us feel like we also need to be easily accessible. You probably know what it’s like to be in bed for the night, checking your inbox just one more time.
Responding to emails outside work hours signals your coworkers that you are available. If you want to keep work emails for work, turn off notifications at the end of the workday.
Stick to this routine, and your colleagues will soon learn only to expect an email response from you during certain times.
Communicate your boundaries.
Letting others know about your boundaries is a great opportunity to lead by example. There’s no need to walk around the office making announcements. Instead, you can add your email policy to your email signature, including your expected response time.
To give this a positive spin, consider emphasizing that a longer response time (one that’s longer than “immediately”) is tied to your desire to offer detailed, thoughtful responses.
5. If you open an email, act on it.
Consider implementing the Only Handle It Once (OHIO) method to your email, that way, you won’t leave emails that you’ve reviewed sitting in folders or hanging out in your inbox waiting to be addressed.
Once you open an email - “touch it” - take immediate action on that email at that point in time so you stop procrastinating on it, no matter if it’s a quick response you can send or something that takes some additional research and a lighter touch.
This tactic is more difficult than the others, because our natural tendency is to procrastinate responding to email. Especially given it’s typically one of the least favorite activities most of us have to do each day.
And, the more emails flooding your inbox each day, the less you can afford to procrastinate. It may take some work and some consistency, but making the OHIO process a part of your daily workflow will save you headaches and lead to greater efficiency in time.
6. Leverage your calendar to knock out tasks related to more urgent or in-depth emails.
Sometimes OHIO isn’t as easy as it seems. Some emails require you to do some in-depth research, or send another email or item in support at a point further down the road. Leverage your calendar to keep everything organized so you’re able to deliver what you need to and when it’s expected.
Most calendars - like Google Calendar or Apple’s iOs Calendars - have a way you can color-code calendar items for different types of urgency or required action. Consider creating a special color for urgent emails and another for those requiring additional research, so you’re always keeping a birds-eye view on what needs to get done, even if your inbox isn’t open throughout the day.
Find the sweet spot for email use
Email has been a boon for workplace communications, and it isn’t going anywhere in the near future. However, finding ways to manage your inbox allows you to find a sweet spot between the pros and cons.
Maybe the next time you hear the notification ding of an email landing in your email, you won’t feel the need to cringe.
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