Whether its our personal account or personal inbox, e-mail is a challenge to manage these days. The idea was that electronic mail was to reduce the amount of things we got in the post and make life easier, but today we are bombarded with newsletters, spam, adverts and countless other things that clog our folders and, particularly with personal e-mail, it seems harder and harder to filter down to the messages we really want to read. Over the past few years I’ve become obsessed with taking back control of my inbox and making my e-mail useful again, and with that in mind I’ve come up with the 5 top things to try in order to wrangle your e-mail back to being less of a monster. Some of these seem obvious, but when all used together it makes a huge difference.
- Inbox zero
If you’re not familiar with the concept of inbox zero, I wrote a long piece on it previously here, but in a nutshell the idea is to keep your inbox ’empty’. In effect your inbox becomes a to do list and you use it to guide you as to things you have to do that day, week or whatever. Before you abandon this post, I’m conscious that I’m starting with the hardest first, and this is intentional, as the next few will help you to realize this goal of an empty inbox, but there are a few things you can do before you go past this. Firstly create folders. Meaningful folders for things that come in regularly is a good way of filing and filtering things away. I’m never an advocate of just deleting things, as sometimes you may need to reference back, but try changing the view of your inbox to group messages together by sender or by topic and you can drag and drop scores of messages at once, For example, if you get regular e-mails from a newsletter, rather than finding them all, sort by sender and all of a sudden they all appear together and can be moved into a folder.
Keep repeating this process until you’re down to the once off mails or the mails that cannot be grouped or categorised easily. Chances are though you’ve reduced your inbox already by as much as 80%. It’s one of those things that happens, most of the mail comes from the social media sites, e-commerce newsletters etc and once these are gone from you inbox you start seeing only the directed messages and more personal mail. The ultimate goal is to filter everything out of your inbox, and as something comes in you action it or reply and then move it into a folder so the box remains as empty as possible.
2. 24 Hour reply
Many companies have a communications policy which ensures that people reply to messages and deliver on what comes into their e-mail but this probably doesn’t apply to your personal inbox, and, even in businesses there are generally limits to how this works and to how strict they are on this. I’ve taken a very straight line on this. If an e-mail comes in from a person, be it a personal message or business I make sure that I reply within 24 hours. Now I give myself the weekends for work related stuff so Friday messages are replied to on Monday, but the principle is the same.
Many people think you shouldn’t reply to a message until you have an answer or something to say in response, but I disagree. I maintain that a simple message to say ‘I got that, I’ve read it and I’ll get back to you’ is very powerful and can really help the other side to feel like you take your e-mail seriously as well as their message. If you can resolve the issue or give an answer, do it then and there and move the message as per inbox zero, if not, send an update every 24 hours until you can get that message out of your new ‘to-do’ list.
This is the obvious one, but probably the most effective for your personal mail. Myself I sat with my phone one evening, and, once I had all the newsletters and automated mails filtered into folders I went through each and clicked the unsubscribe on the bottom of each message, For things like social media, clicking unsubscribe often just stops that particular type of notification so it’s worth actually logging in and unsubscribing from most if not all to prevent you from continuing to get these messages. I do advise keeping security or critical notifications though, but these are few and far between. The big trick to this is that it’s not going to be over night, you might need a couple of weeks of clicking unsubscribe as new ones come in.
4. Multiple signatures
Here’s a really interesting one that I’ve started using in the past few weeks. I have a really cool signature that I like and contains all my details and social media links, but I made a small mistake the other day when I replied to a message and left my mobile number included in the signature. Sure enough this person, who was a sales rep from a service I had no interest in, took the liberty of calling me, which was inconvenient and they now had my number. To remedy this from happening again I created a second signature without my mobile number and saved this as the default. Now if I need someone to have my contact number I can simply select the one with this information from the signatures menu in my e-mail client.
This can be really useful for so many reasons, and, at the time or writing this I have 4 or 5 e-mail signatures for different circumstances. For instance, I often get asked to do some training consulting work and need to send terms and conditions and a form to fill out by the client. I like creating personalized replies so rather than a complete e-mail template, I’ve created a signature that includes these two documents already attached so I don’t forget. Plus when I update these forms I update them in one place and I know that people are getting the correct and up to date version. It also means I don’t necessarily need to keep the files handy as they’re part of the signature.
5. Timed e-mail
Most e-mail clients these days, either on your PC or phone, have the option to choose when your e-mail comes in, and most people I talk to don’t seem to bother with this function. Sure it makes sense not to be woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a notification, but why not take this a step further, Often employers will recommend for work life balance that business e-mail only comes in during business hours unless critical (critical means very different things though depending on the company) and I advocate doing the same with your personal e-mail.
Set the option that it comes in regularly during the day, but after that it goes back to manual. In other words while you’re having dinner or at the cinema or out with friends the messages only come in if you go into your inbox and actually update. Aside from the fact that this is far less anti-social, it reduces the stress of checking and answering or just the frustration of just getting spam. Now, when you’re sitting watching your soaps on TV you can check and sort through at a time that suits you.
Some of these things are more easy to adopt than others and in truth it probably takes a couple of weeks to see a real change in your mailbox and your habits, but it does work. I’ve successfully reduced my personal inbox from 50 – 60 messages coming in per day to less than 10 and most of these are ones I’ve looked for, interacted with or really want to get. As of writing this there are 2 messages in my inbox, both things I need to do today, this lets me focus on other more important things. Remember that your e-mail is a tool that’s supposed to make your life easier, not another chore that you dread, Regain control and you might be surprised and how much you enjoy using it again.