If you have an email inbox associated with your job, you know what a tyrant email can be. New messages come in all day long, demanding attention and pulling you away from whatever task you were just doing. Many of them aren’t actually urgent, but we often react to them as though they are. If you’ve got a particularly active inbox, it’s easy to spend an entire day dealing with email and not actually getting any real work done.
For some people, the solution is relatively simple: turn off your email notifications and close your inbox while you’re doing tasks that require concentration. Check your email only during scheduled times, and set expectations among your coworkers or clients so they don’t expect an immediate response to messages.
What if you can’t shut off your email?
For some of us, shutting down the email inbox for large sections of the day isn’t possible. If you run an online store and your orders come via email, then processing email orders is money in your pocket.
Email is a huge part of my job as project manager. In fact, I’ve had days where I spent my entire workday on email, and ended with more than when I began. My goal is to be smart and to use email as a tool.
So how do I keep email in its place and stop it from taking over my work life? Here are some things that work for me. I don’t do all of them all of the time, or always in this order, but I’ve found these tactics are good tools in my toolbox:
Set priorities first thing
Before I open my email in the morning, I decide what tasks I need to accomplish that day. This helps me see the larger picture. Sometimes I may re-prioritize after I see my email, but at least this way I have better perspective: i.e., is this “emergency” email really more important than xyz that I had planned for today?
Make a to-do list based on the emails—with time estimates
Realistic time estimates help me combat my natural tendency to despair. Knowing a task should only take 40 minutes helps calm me when I feel overwhelmed.
Batch-process emails by type
Mentally, I divide emails into types. So I’ll handle all the emails about billing at once, then tackle all the emails about hosting or domains, and so on.
Answer emails from oldest to newest
Other days, I use this method instead of the one above. I try to concentrate on one email at a time, in order. This prevents me from eternally procrastinating on the difficult emails, and wasting mental energy worrying about them while I’m trying to do other tasks.
Set a timer
For emails that don’t require a careful or sensitive response, I really don’t need to overthink them. A timer encourages me to focus and knock as many emails out of the way within x minutes.
Consolidate subscriptions so unimportant emails are out of the way
I use Unroll.me to keep advertising and newsletter emails all in one place and out of my way. They aren’t urgent and they don’t need to compete for my attention. Now that they aren’t in my inbox, I hardly miss them, and I don’t feel bad because I can always find them when I want.
Block time away from email when needed
Again, shutting off email for most of the day doesn’t work for many of us. But when I really need to concentrate on a big task, I might close my email client and set a timer so that I can work for 60 minutes without checking my email. If I use this strategically, then it can work well.
My Email Management System
There is one tactic I use every day: I keep emails in my inbox until I handle them.
I know there are other systems out there to organize email (for example, see Tim’s version of the Zero Email Bounce method) but after trying several things I’ve found that this is the one that works best for me personally:
- When something comes in, I deal with it if I can (using the batch process, etc., from above).
- If it’s not something I can deal with immediately, I use a folder. For example, sometimes I come across an email connected to a larger task that isn’t urgent and isn’t strategic for today, but something I eventually need to deal with. In a case like this, I might file it away in a To-Do folder (though I have to be careful about that because I only go through the to-do folder when I have extra time, which isn’t very often). If I’m done with an email but I know I’ll need it for reference soon, then I file it in a Reference folder. Other folders include Reading (interesting stuff I save for slow day) and the Wiki (where I store information that I’ll eventually want to make available on our internal office wiki.)
- Once an email is dealt with, it’s archived. We use Google Apps for email, which has an excellent search feature. If I find I need to reference an email from months ago, I can just search my archives folder and it’s there—no further organization needed.
A major benefit of this method is that I always have an idea of how much email work I have to do, based on the number of emails in my inbox. (Current count: 6. It’s a very, very good day–most days it’s closer to 100.) Also, I hardly ever lose emails. I know some people who rarely delete emails—they have hundreds or thousands of emails in their inbox. They also frequently lose emails or forget to reply. I don’t have this problem because I know that if it’s still in my inbox, I still need to answer it.
So there you have it—how to keep email in its place. This system isn’t perfect, but it does allow me to stay on top of my email. Sometimes it’s just a crazy email day, and nothing I do can really change that.
But by following these guidelines, I can typically prevent email from dictating my day (and totally stressing me out) and instead use it as a tool to get things done.