A few years ago, I remember having like 400 email messages in my inbox and feeling completely overwhelmed. I wanted to get through them all but then did the math. If I spent only one minute answering each email, that was going to take an entire day. And more would come in, plus I knew many of them were going to take much longer than a minute to deal with.
Email can still be overwhelming, at times. But usually I keep my inbox in the 50 to 75 messages range (it’s 53 right now). Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of strategies that have seemed to help. I thought I’d share some of them.
1) Deal With It Immediately: When I get an email, I try to answer it as fast as I can. That doesn’t mean I’m constantly checking and trying to deal with the newest stuff. Instead, it’s more a “touch it once” strategy. Try to respond when you see an email for the first time, whenever you get to it, and it’s done. If you save it for later, you’re wasting time twice. Or three times. And so on and so on.
2) Let It Sit: You can’t deal with everything immediately. You can’t deal with all the email and requests you receive at all, in many cases. So some stuff you’ll pass by. A day goes by. Two, three and more. Eventually, that email is so old that either (A) whatever was so important turned out not to be or (B) if it was that important, you’ll get a new email about it. Let go. Allow time to deal with some of your current email woes.
Of course, I still try to get through everything. It’s kind of sucky when I get to some question that may have taken me a month to finally answer, only to find that the person who sent it didn’t use a working address or has since found a solution to their problem.
3) Don’t Send Unless You Have To: This is sort of a corollary to Let It Sit, and it’s more a plea to anyone who sends email than those who trying to deal with it. Did you really need to ask someone something? I love feedback, and I really love to help people and answer questions as best I can. But it’s a timesuck if someone sends out the same question to 5 or 10 different people. You make time to respond, only to get back “Oh, so and so answered me.” Or worse, “Oh, I did a search and found what I was looking for.”
4) Pick Up The Damn Phone: Got yourself in an email conversation that’s now going into its fourth or fifth round? There’s this thing called the phone. It’s over 100 years old, and it really works well at this concept of two-way conversation. There’s no need to have an Earth-Mars timelag in our conversations. At some point, email ceases to be the best way to communicate. Call people.
5) Clear The Clutter: One nice thing about Outlook is how it will group things by date. Of the 53 messages currently in my inbox, 14 are grouped as “Today.” I’ll try to work on those tomorrow, and get through as many as I can. Another 5 are flagged as “Yesterday,” then 2 as “Last Week,” then 6 as “Two Weeks Ago” and so on. At the bottom of my inbox, there are about another 16 tagged as “Older.”
Chances are, I won’t catch up to those older things. Some of them have just gotten too dusty. My oldest message is from June 2007, from Matt Cutts, about some Google issue I still mean to catch-up on. That’s nearly a year-and-a-half old now. I’ll probably never get to it, and if I do, it probably won’t still be relevant. I really should just delete the dang thing — along with some of the others. Save me some time; saves Matt some time (he’s got his own email issues and tips)
Outlook effectively clears the clutter for me by shoving everything like this automatically into the “Older” group. But if you’re using Gmail, try an alternative I used to use with Outlook. Make a folder for each month. Go on, right now, make these:
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008 & Older
Now go to your inbox. Anything from December 2008? Shove it into the December folder. November to November, October to October and all the rest — shove it into September 2008 & Older.
Now look at your inbox. Feeling a bit better, seeing less there? Hopefully, at least, you feel less overwhelmed. I know, I know — but there’s all that email you have to answer, that you’re just hiding!
Yes, you are. But remember the Let It Sit rule. If it’s crucial, you’ll get fresh message about it. Meanwhile, in the back of your mind, you can subconsciously relax that you really do expect to get into those various month folders and deal with the older email. You won’t! But let yourself believe it, and you’ll can hopefully get more functional with the stuff you really can deal with.
6) Pray For A Virus: Not for you, of course. For others. Seriously, email viruses are great. When they go around, folks stop sending an email, and it’s catch-up time! Or email holiday time.
7) Categorize: I used to be a big categorized folder nut. I’d have folders for all different types of projects (and in Gmail, you can label stuff to do the same). I’m not so big on that now, mainly because I’ve gotten a better handle on my inbox over the years. I realized shoving stuff in a particular project folder meant I probably wouldn’t get to it. But in a few cases, it can be helpful.
8 ) Use Gmail For Searching: Merging Gmail & Google Apps Mail Accounts and The Great Gmail Import & My Short Life With Web-Based Mail have some background on what I do with Gmail (now with offline support! — and more here). But the short story is this. All my mail runs through Gmail (actually, through Google Apps, which has the benefit of solving what I covered in my Gmail’s “Custom From” System Messed Up By “On Behalf Of” Headers post).
From Gmail, I download into Outlook (which automatically archives a copy in Gmail). That gives me a backup in case Google from some reason loses all my mail. It also gives me a tool that I find handles my email needs much better. But if I need to find a particular message? I fire up my browser, hit Gmail, and within seconds can locate whatever I want in the 155,000 archived emails I have stretching back to 2004.
Being able to search like this has greatly reduced my need to file and store email within Outlook. I just don’t worry about that, any longer. And if you’re not spending time trying to find email, you have a bit more time to deal with it.
Happy emailing. Or not emailing!