One of the best things the Internet has delivered over the last 20 years or so, since it moved from being a tool of academia and the government into broad public use, is email. The days of sending letters if you were patient, faxes if you had a machine, or a telegram or Telex were suddenly usurped by a tool that offered near instant delivery and is almost free. But that's led to a new challenge; managing the volume and velocity of messages. How do you manage the mountain of email, or does it manage you?
A recent article at Futurity notes that “Like most tools, email is useful but it can become disruptive and even damaging if used excessively or inappropriately".
What can we do to avoid being distracted by email?
#1 Turn Off Notifications
This is a simple tip but I'm amazed at the number of people I know who haven't set their notification settings so they don't get an alert every time a new email arrives.
Turn of sounds, pop-ups and other alerts. For urgent messages, such as those from management, family or some other higher priority sender, you'll likely find there's a way to tweak settings so you are alerted to those messages and not others.
#2 Quarantine Email Time
Limit email processing to specific times.
In my case, I do a quick scan of just email subjects each morning. Anything I don't. Think I need to worry about gets deleted straightway and I only open things that look important.
Later in the day, usually between 11:00AM and 12;00PM I do a more thorough look and respond to anything that needs my attention.
I take another look in the late afternoon before setting some time aside to review what I got done today and then plan for tomorrow and that’s it.
Interestingly, this fits with the idea that we should do administrative tasks in the middle of the day as that's when our creativity is at its nadir.
#3 Focus Your Inbox
There are lots of ways to prioritise the messages in your inbox. Some people use flags while others have rules for automatically applying labels or moving messages to folders.
What works for me are smart folders or saved searches that let me easily see
- All unread messages
- Today's Messages
- Yesterday's Messages
- Messages from my VIP list
- A small number of smart folders/saved searches that hold messages related to specific tasks (I only keep these for as long as I need them)
There are lots of prescriptive systems for managing your inbox. These are useful for ideas but I think it's important to find a system that works for you.
#4 Learn To Not Respond
This one also goes for the phone. Not every message needs a response. Just because you receive a message it doesn't mean you have to do anything about it.
#5 Talk To People
There's a coffee mug I've seen a few times that says "That was another email that should have been a phone call". (There's another version that says "That was a meeting that should have been an email").
I really loathe email conversations. They are time consuming sinkholes that waste lots of time. My rule of thumb is that if by the third purpose of the message isn't resolved it's time to pick up the phone or - this might seem radical - walk across the office and talk to someone. Or perhaps even schedule a quick chat over coffee.
As well as saving time, you might make better connection that will aid future communication.
How do you manage your email? Do you have any tips you'd like to share?let us know in the comments.