Find Solace In Your Inbox

When I started working this morning, I had nine new emails in my inbox — four of them were related to a single issue, so technically you could say it was really just six emails.

I’m hoping your reaction to this is along the lines of, “Wow! Only six new emails?!?!? I’m lucky if I have less than one hundred!!!”

But, that can’t possibly be true, right? What about all of the emails regarding comments on JIRA tickets? What about the emails from sales and service managers regarding product questions/updates? What about meeting requests? What about the emails from our Australian and European offices? They were both in their peak business hours before I even woke up this morning, so I surely must have been getting emails from them!

You caught me. I did get all of those emails too. However, let me emphasis one concept here: “my inbox.” I’ll speak more to that later.

Just like many of you reading this article, I probably average about 150–200 new emails per day (assuming no major bugs are being reported). Also, like most of you, I’ve read several of “those” articles…you know, the ones about deleting the email app on your phone, or better organizing your inbox? And, probably like most of you, I’ve tried some of their methods but always ended up regressing back to chaos that has consumed my productivity for years.

The fact is, most of us do not have the time — or authority — to avoid our email like some of these “productivity” articles suggest. Instead, we all tend to work in roles that require us to be readily available for our clients, colleagues, and managers. Therefore, we are incessantly saturated with hundreds upon hundreds of emails each week. What’s sad is some people almost take pride in how insane their inbox is — as if it’s some sign of how important they are. I know I’ve done it before.

“It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.” — Voltaire

It wasn’t until recently that I hit my breaking point. In my current role, I’m communicating with seven different teams, across eight time zones, on four continents, regarding three different products — not including the ad hoc client communications I get pulled into on a daily basis. Simply put: my email was an organizational nightmare, and nearly impossible to maintain any coherent communication chain due to the sheer number of incoming emails.

So, what did I change? How did I learn to stop worrying and love my inbox? hehe…please tell me y’all get the reference!

Well, I’ll tell you how here. While you’ve probably read some of these ideas elsewhere, hopefully I can present these in a more meaningful way to those of you in a similar situation as myself.


Detachment

First off, I don’t “love” my inbox; that was purely a reference to Doctor Strangeloves title. However, I do tolerate my email now, and only because I learned how to detach myself from my email.

I had to learn that the work that mattered most was not what was going on in my inbox. I had to be able to look at my inbox and say, “will these one hundred emails help me bring value to my company today?” Most of the time, the answer is “No.

To clarify: “detachment” does not equal “apathy.”

I’m not saying that I ignore those hundreds of emails that flood into my inbox each day. I’m simply stating that I had to learn how to prioritize my work, as well as understand where I was adding value to my product/company. For some, the value they contribute does come from their email communications. However, if you’ve ever said, “Gee…I wish people would just stop emailing me so I could get some work done,” then you may need to consider detaching yourself from your inbox.

Priority

So, naturally, prioritizing my work also meant prioritizing my email. I needed to be able to identify the most important emails and ensure those were the only ones I was seeing in my inbox. However, this was rather difficult because my company uses Gmail as its primary email service. As most of you know, your inbox in Gmail has several tabs (e.g. Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, etc.). While great for auto-sorting your emails, that’s a lot of information that’s getting put in front of you every time you log into your email account — and if you’re anything like me, you feel like you have to look through every single email before you can get anything else done.

I needed to create a way to better organize and focus my email so that I was only ever seeing the most important items. So, I started by creating acceptance criteria for my “inbox.”

My Inbox

‘Member when I emphasized this concept and said I’d speak more about it later? Well, pop your popcorn and settle in for the show!

When I had created these acceptance criteria for my inbox, I saw nearly an immediate impact on my inbox.

It became apparent to me from the get-go that I had to cut out all of the non-essential communications from my inbox. This meant eliminating those “Social” and “Promotions” tabs, and only having a single, “Primary” inbox.

I now define my “inbox” as the emails that show up when I first login, which should only show the most essential, high priority emails being sent to me.

To create this I had to define what type of emails needed to show in my inbox, and what emails were to be filtered into other folders. Obviously, I started by creating filters that ensured any emails from my boss and our senior vice president would go to my inbox, as well as be “starred.” Then, I started building filters that pulled in essential emails into my inbox — these filters were based on certain senders, as well as keywords in the subject or body. I finalized my inbox acceptance criteria with a filter for non-essential, but value contributing emails — these are emails from my Asana projects with the international Product teams, and emails from JIRA where my name is exposed in the comments section.

When I had created these acceptance criteria for my inbox, I saw nearly an immediate impact on my inbox. No more hundreds of emails displayed that I felt like I had to look through. Only what was important to my day-to-day work. My Inbox.

Yet, I didn’t want to ignore my other emails entirely because something important could have slipped through the filters. So, I had to create a map of folders/labels to better organize all of the other emails that were coming through.

Organization

Gmail calls them “Labels,” but realistically they’re folders.

I needed to build a hierarchy of folders to store this infinite flow of emails streaming into my inbox. Again, I started by prioritizing types of emails. I would first build a parent folder for that email type which was to be a “catch-all.” I would then create child folders nested under that which were used to better specify emails based on more specific criteria — and, you guessed it, I created filters for those child folders that would automatically sort and store emails in their respective folder.

While I’d love to talk more about specific folders and filters I’ve created, I don’t want to entirely divulge some of my trade-secrets that my colleagues who may be reading will use to circumvent my system…sorry, but not sorry.

Another organizational method I’ve developed in my inbox is the “star system.” In your settings, you can actually choose various icons to use when “starring” an email. What I did is choose a few of these icons, wrote down what I wanted each one to represent, and then started using them to offer visual representation of specific information for my inbox items.

This image gives a small snapshot into how I use the star system. The orange “>>” icon signifies an email that I’ve replied to and am waiting a response on. The yellow “!” icon classifies the email as a low-priority item that needs my attention. The blue “i” icon designates this email as containing information I’d like to reference at a later time. And finally, the standard Gmail “important” marker designates an email that I need to ensure I follow up on the next time I check my email. While I use a few additional icons, this image gives a really good visualization of how I get the most information from my inbox without having to read through each email chain.

Honestly, I think this was the most important aspect of my inbox cleanup, because it allows me to glance at my inbox and get only the necessary information (similar to how a server responds to a request from a browser). I have another example of this, but it’s specific to my folder system: I’m looking at my inbox right now and can see in the side menu that I have one new/unread email in my “Documents” folder. Without clicking into the folder, I already know that someone either shared or commented on a Google Drive doc|sheet|slide|etc. I’m able to gather that information without an unnecessary click, and I can determine that’s not something I think is absolutely necessary at this moment, so I’ll backlog that item to check later in the day when I have more free time.

Speaking Of Free Time…

The hardest concept I’ve had to incorporate into my day is the “scheduled email time.” I know a lot of business journals already preach this methodology — essentially, scheduling time on your calendar to read your emails, and only checking your emails during that scheduled time.

First off, I am going to preach this as well, but with one stipulation: having scheduled time to check your email does not mean you should ignore your email the rest of the day.

In order to make sure I was maximizing the efficiency of my email communications, without sacrificing time spent on my non-email related responsibilities, I had to schedule three 30 minute appointments on my calendar specifically for reading my emails. The reason for this were:

  1. Since I’m always being pulled into meetings, I had to block off time in my day to focus on communicating with the various teams that I work with.
  2. I needed to set a limit for how much time I was devoting to my email.

The second point was probably the biggest for me, because I would find myself getting lost in my inbox for hours if I didn’t give myself a “hard-stop.”

What I’m seeing in this method is that I am able to prioritize my communication more efficiently, and guarantee that I’ll reply to the most important emails within a timely manner. When I hit my thirty minute limit, I minimize my inbox and start on my next task.

In an evolved business world where communications are nearly instantaneous, it’s completely unreasonable to tell people they’re only allowed to communicate with you once a day.

Where I disagree with these “check your email once a day” articles, or these “turn off push notification” suggestions, is that they’re entirely unrealistic. If my boss emails me with an urgent request, he’s not going to wait until 12:30pm when I have my next scheduled “Read Email” appointment. If an angry sales manager blows up my inbox while I’m at lunch, I’m not going to ignore my phone or turn off push notifications. In an evolved business world where communications are nearly instantaneous, it’s completely unreasonable to tell people they’re only allowed to communicate with you once a day. We, as product managers, customer service representatives, sales managers, etc., have to be available to our stakeholders, customers, employers/employees.

So, when I check my email during my 8am appointment, I’m not going to ignore any emails between 8:30am and 12:30pm (when the next appointment is scheduled). What I’m telling myself is, “this is your time to read and reply to the most important emails [my inbox]. If you have free time later, you can delve into the non-essential emails.”

And you know what’s funny? Since I’ve started this system, I’ve noticed I’m getting more done during the day, which is leaving me more free time to address non-essential emails when I have a spare moment…crazy coincidence, right?

In Conclusion

I’m not saying these methods will make you more productive, or are the “right” answer towards solving the great email problem that plagues our workforce. Rather, I’m hoping to offer insights into how I approached my inbox.

I think the key is to focus your email efforts. First, you must prioritize your work and determine what’s necessary from you regarding your emailing efforts. Next, identify the most important communications, and make those your priority when you’re checking your inbox. Then, create a system that returns you the most information on your conversations without requiring you to read over a bunch of old emails. Lastly, limit the time you spend in your inbox, but don’t ignore it!

If you can find a way to incorporate these concepts into your own work, I’m hoping you’ll find yourself much more at peace with your inbox each day.

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