On any given day, my inbox is typically filled with more than 800 incoming emails. The people sending these emails range from clients and readers to customers and supporters. A lot of people would be overwhelmed by this amount of incoming distractions but I’ve unlocked the Da Vinci code to managing my inbox effectively & efficiently.
Managing emails is an important part of our work. Email has become the most frequently used vehicle for professional communication and while most of us use this tool, many of us haven’t quite figured out how to do it effectively. Without properly managing your inbox, email can become a source of distraction instead of a useful communications tool. Here are four tips to help you manage your inbox effectively and improve workflow:
1. Process Your Inbox In Batches
Grouping your tasks is an effective way to process and complete things that are similar in nature. Scheduling time in your day to dedicate your attention to your email is one of the most effective ways to manage your inbox. It’s highly ineffective to go back and forth between projects you’re working on and managing your inbox. A lot of people like to think they can multi-task when in reality, it’s pretty much impossible to do more than one task at a time. The act of managing your inbox isn’t multitasking – it’s what researchers call task switching. And task switching has some serious drawbacks:
- It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time. You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time. If the tasks are complex then these time and error penalties increase. Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.
- Task switching involves several parts of your brain: Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.
We spend too much time responding to emails as they come in. Pulling our attention away from a task to provide an immediate response to an email is a major time-killer. Instead, visit your inbox at fixed times throughout your workday. For instance, visit your inbox at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and dedicate half an hour to reading and replying to emails. The easiest way to do this is to turn-off your email program while you’re not using it, and/or disable your email notifications.
2. Leverage Folders For Categorization
Start by setting up a simple filing system to help manage your mail. Organizing your emails is an easy way to keep your inbox clean and your “email time” efficient. Create and label folders to help you accomplish your work. For instance, you could use broad categories like “Make an Intro”, “Waiting for reply”, “Reference” and “Archives”.
Another approach is to set up a detailed system that encompasses a folder for every project that you’re working on. This way you can manage your correspondence based on the type or purpose of the conversation.
3. Don’t Sit On Your Inbox
A common mistake people make when sifting through their inbox is reading all new emails before replying to any of them. Even worse, many of us read them and leave them and then return to them later. Or at least, we tell ourselves that’s what we’re going to do.
The problem with this method is that it takes more time to re-read each email a second time and rethink your response before you hit the “reply” button. Rather than reading first and replying second, make the effort to go through your inbox like an assassin. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done suggests we employ a “Two-Minute Rule” – if the email takes less than two minutes to read and reply, then take care of it right away, even it’s a low priority item.
Go through each email one by one and take an action after reading them. Some of these emails you’ll delete and some you’ll forward to a colleague. Either way, you’re executing and getting things done.
4. Leverage Inbox Tools & Plug-ins
There are lots of tools out there that you can leverage to take your inbox from 0 to 100. Some of the members from Product Hunt have compiled pretty awesome lists of products that will help you do just that. You can check those out here but in the meantime, here are three of my favourites:
Boomerang for Gmail is a Firefox / Chrome plug-in that lets you take control of when you send and receive email messages. With Boomerang, you can write an email now and schedule it to be sent automatically later. You can also use Boomerang to take messages out of your inbox until you need them.
Full Contact is a relationship management tool that shows you everything about your contacts right inside your inbox. This tool allows you to see what people look like, where they are, and what they do. You can establish rapport (hehe.. these folks are aiming to replace Rapporative) with your contacts by identifying shared interests and can even connect on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
Canned Responses in Gmail lets you compose replies to common messages you may receive, and saves them for future use. In just a few clicks, you can insert one of your pre-written replies, allowing you to tackle the messages that you might normally read and forget to answer when you have a free moment.
Signing up for a few of these tools and thinking about these practices isn’t enough. You need to take action and be intentional with how you integrate these tools and strategies into your life. It may require some work, but it’s a lot easier to make these changes than it is to continually get side tracked by your inbox.
What are some other ways to manage your inbox effectively?