How to manage your email inbox with 2 simple strategies

“I’m sorry, that email must have gotten lost in my inbox…”
Oh my!

As workers in the knowledge economy, email has become our primary means of communication. Whether it is with customers, suppliers, vendors, or colleagues we send each other massive amounts of email throughout the day (and evening too!)

The emails will range from (As Stephen Covey might classify them) urgent important communications regarding a significant business deal that is under development to non-urgent, non-important emails that you’ve been CC’d on and have little to no bearing on your position or workflow.

If you are receiving upwards of 50–100+ emails on a daily basis (welcome to my world) there simply isn’t a way to keep up (let alone stay ahead) without a reliable and practical system of email management in place. An inbox with 100’s of unread emails, and 100’s of lingering messages which you may (or may not) have acted on, makes being efficient in your work nearly impossible.

This situation can easily lead to missed obligations, unintentionally abdicated responsibilities, and worst of all, missed opportunities for growth and development.

Email isn’t going away anytime soon — so how can we get a leash around this monster?

I’m going to show you two strategies that have helped me tame my inbox monster.

There are MANY resources available on the web offering to teach you how to manage your email inbox. I’ve tried several over the last 15+ years and have finally come upon one that not only works, but is sustainable and allows me to stay ahead. My approach is a hybrid of some of the most popular methods out there, and can be applied in nearly any email environment. I use it in both Microsoft Outlook and within Gmail.

The two simple strategies to employ are:

  1. Don’t try to out organize or out remember your computer
  2. Touch each email only one time

Implementing these two strategies will change the way you work with email, and make what seemed unmanageable, manageable again.

Don’t try to out organize or out remember your computer

I know some people with photographic memories (Hi Jolene). Yes even their memories aren’t perfect (Sorry, Jolene).

So when you process upwards of 100 emails per day — our necessarily flawed memories are bound to forget something. Using a haphazard, or worse no email management system, you’ll forget if you responded, or processed emails. You’ll forget where you filed something:

  • was it in the company folder,
  • the project folder,
  • the sender folder?
  • Did I delete it?
  • Is it still in my inbox?
Enlarged to show texture

Use the tools built in your email system to do this legwork for you.

This means ditching the system of folder after folder you’ve created for every project or company you do business with.

Don’t mistake complexity for organization.

Create a single archive folder — per year. That’s it. One folder.

Call it 2016 (this year).

After you process an email (we’ll address this in the next strategy) don’t waste time trying to sort out where it should be filed — or where you filed previous emails related to this topic — they ALL go in 2016 (your organizing by conversation/ subject thread already, right?).

Then if you need to recall some email you can look in the one place you know it is, the 2016 folder. And you can either scroll through, if it’s a recent email you’re looking for, or just use that handy search bar to search based on some keywords (just like you would in Google).

I was skeptical when I first learned this technique from my IT specialist years ago. But I’ve been using it since 2009 and it’s really the best system I’ve seen. Outlook and Google search (within Gmail) is so powerful, it really alleviates all the stress of filing and recalling. One folder + search and you’re golden.

Touch each email only once.

This one is more work and takes some getting used to. But if you can follow it, even 80–90% of the time,you’ll experience fewer email headaches.

Here is how you could implement it.

Every morning when you get to the office,and once you’re ready to begin emails for the day (stay tuned for a post about why you may not want to start your day with email), you’ll look at the emails that came in overnight or earlier in the morning and scan them for importance. Did one come in from your leadership team? Did one come in that you’ve been waiting for? Is one flagged important?

Once you have a quick scan of those emails, if nothing is on fire — turn to all the other junk that came in. Either delete these straight away if you know they are spam or a newsletter you don’t have time to read. Additionally, any other emails that you’ve just been CC’d on for informational purposes — drag those down into 2016 without any thought. So now you’ve gotten rid of some junk and some fluff.

Then turn to the emails identified a few minutes earlier as important and open them in order of importance.

Is the email something you need to act on? If not, turns out it wasn’t that important, quickly drop it into 2016. If it is something you need to act on — decide — is it something you can act on right away? Like a quick reply with a small piece of information or a few sentences of text? If so do it then file it.

Is it something that will require 5–10 min of work to accomplish? Since you’ve opened it let’s try to get it processed.

Don’t stress about the other emails right now,and don’t get distracted with other emails coming in. Work on the task related to the email you’ve opened and complete it.

If you need to send a response do that, then file the email and it’s on to the next one. Even if you can only do some small portion of the task because you need input from others, do your part and file it. When a response comes back, the whole email thread will come back into your inbox. So don’t stress, do your part and file it in 2016.

Becomes part of your larger workflow

Let’s say it’s something that’s going to take a good chunk of time. 20–50 min. This is where we’ll break the rule a little. You can close these emails and use the flag/reminder function. (In Gmail you can use labels or tasks, or another similar method) Flag it for completion either later today or at some other time (usually tomorrow). (I’ll have another post about organizing a to-do list and how these emails fall on that to-do list).

Then once you’ve gone through that batch of emails there should only be a few that are hanging around, and those have all been flagged.

Next step is to address any flagged emails that are due today and once you open you complete them even if it takes 30+ min.

Rotate through this process in 25–30min chunks. If there is a particularly large project in there, it may be a few chunks, and that’s okay.

The bottom line is to get to a point where the MAJORITY of the emails are quickly processed and only the larger tasks stay in the inbox, where they’re tagged and managed on a schedule.

This is a great podcast by Pat Flynn on how he worked with a virtual assistant who used a similar strategy to help him manage 1000’s of unread emails:

Try these two simply strategies out when you get to work tomorrow. Let me know if they work or if you have questions on how to implement them. I have a few additional tricks that I use — which I’ll share another time or if folks ask. If you’re not sure how to implement this because you’ve got a HUGE inbox program, shoot me a note and we can talk through how to approach it.

You’re free!
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