I promised to tell you more about my mail habits a couple of posts ago. When I changed the way I use my inbox, this was a huge step. Huge both in terms of productivity improvement as well as effort to overcome the old habit. I’m sure the way I do it is neither perfect nor suitable for everyone. However, it works great for me and I hope you can benefit from my experience.
There is no need to read or reply to mails instantly. It’s easy to get into the habit and others might even expect you to answer within minutes. Take a deep breath and stop. Now. The first step is to disable all kinds of notifications. Switch off all sounds, popups and badges. They all distract you and destroy your productivity. I am currently working on reading mail twice a day. Less might work for you but more is definitely not necessary. However, it’s not easy to change from 30 times a day to twice but it’s possible.
This one is basic and might sound obvious to you but it’s important and something I didn’t think of before. I never put any message out of my inbox. After a couple of years I ended up with thousands of messages. As you can imagine it took me a reasonable amount of hours to sort them. Why is an empty inbox important? Well, it’s mainly a psychological reason. It’s a great feeling to look at emptiness. Empty equals no work to do which means you can spend your time on your passions. In contrast, when you never clean up your inbox you can never be sure whether everything is done or not. This is horrible! That’s why the process of emptying your inbox is a major part of the technique I am using. So if you got hundreds or even thousands of mails lying around, now is the best time to get rid of them.
I’m using the GMail WebApp to manage all my mail. You may use any client you like. Just make sure it supports some kind of folders (in GMail they are called labels) and you have all your accounts in one place. I’m currently managing about half a dozen different accounts with GMail. If you are looking for a client, I can recommend it. My main folders are: inbox, flagged and archive. I’ve got a couple of other folders like notes, receipts, waiting, private, company names etc. But the main ones are the three I mentioned before.
So you’ve got your favorite mail client fired up and a bunch of unread items in your inbox. What’s next? The goal is always to get to zero items. I first scan the titles to reveal those I can delete or archive without looking into them. Great, first step done. Now it’s time to skim the contents. If it’s a short mail you can respond to quickly, do it. Just set yourself a limit like three minutes. If you think you won’t be able to respond within that time, don’t do it. Mails you aren’t processing immediately go into the flagged folder. In GMail you just have to click the star icon. There might be long mails waiting for you. Don’t read them completely before you decide whether to respond or flag them. The three minutes limit includes reading! So now that you have deleted, moved, processed and flagged your items the inbox should be empty. Congratulations! :) If you are using GMail, you might notice that flagged items stay in the inbox until you move them manually. Just mark all and click archive to get them out of the inbox. They can still be found in the flagged folder.
Now whenever you feel like you need to get some work done, visit your flagged folder and start working on those items. How often should you do it? Well, it depends. In other words: I am still experimenting with time frames. Daily is definitely too often, once a week too seldom for my taste. I encourage you to try different intervals and share your thoughts in the comments. Quite important: Make sure there is no item waiting forever. There are several ways to avoid this. One would be to clean the flagged folder regularly, too. Another would be to sort the flagged items by date and start working on old ones. That’s it! It’s really easy to understand but the hard part is noy to relapse back into old habits. Give it a try and find out if it’s working for you. Don’t stop trying when you realize that you’ve checked your mail the tenth time that day. A habit takes about two weeks to settle.
Just to provide you with some ideas for other folders: Notes is for mail I know I’ll be needing soon like an electronic boarding ticket. You definitely don’t want to have it in your inbox but you also don’t want it in your flagged folder as it doesn’t require any action. Sometimes I put an important mail in the waiting folder when the response is urgent. That way I can easily keep track of if people are answering me or not. I put all bills etc. into receipts to have them in one place. To be honest I think I’ve never looked into that folder but it’s good to know they are sorted. I once had a folder called important where I planned to put in the most important flagged items. In GMail it’s even possible to change the folder color. In this case, red is an appropriate choice. I stopped using it for some reason but maybe it’s a useful idea for you.
There are countless situations where this approach just makes no sense. For example, you published a blog post and want to respond to your readers’ comments as fast as possible. In general it will be the wrong tool whenever it comes to the relationship to your customers or readers. When it’s crucial for you to respond quickly, please don’t stop just because I suggested it. Nevertheless, I think this is an easy and well working approach to get started. Ok, great! Now you know everything that’s important to rock your inbox! I’d be happy to read what you think about my approach in the comments. Are you using something similar or totally different? Any ideas for enhancements? Thank you for reading!