There was a time not so long ago when having an empty email inbox seemed do-able. Even if I never actually got around to doing it. Not any more. Just sifting through my inbox would take all day. Everything is communicated by email – I’d venture to guess that only half of what you’re seeing has any relevance to your job at all. We’re getting cced on emails that aren’t for us, ads, newsletters, industry memes, and your kid’s school updates. And it’s not going to stop. So what are some ways you can manage what you are getting so that your inbox isn’t controlling your work priorities instead of the other way around.
The first step is to create some rules around what you see, where you see it and when you see it. Let’s start with the when. There are very few emails that need to be seen and answered immediately. So set up a schedule on which you handle emails, maybe twice a day at set times. It’s okay to let people know that you’ve done this. Tell your boss, the people you work the most with, whomever is appropriate, that in order to be productive at work, you have certain times you’ll be checking emails. One organization I’ve worked with had a short document with all employee communication preferences on it. That includes how to reach someone if you need a response ASAP. People feel comfortable knowing they can reach someone in an emergency, even though almost no one ever does.
What this also means is turning off the notifications on your devices. Our phones and computers, our air conditions and alarms – they’re all set up to work seamlessly with each other. And that seamlessness comes at a price. The Nest in your house doesn’t alert you to work deadlines, it alerts you to the temperature of your house. And every time you’re interrupted, your attention drifts. So stop the beeps, the pop-ups, and the vibrations and all the other little reminders.
Once you’ve turned some things off, it’s time to turn others on and let your email work for you. Email servers give you the option of creating folders with automatic rules that filter messages into them without your needing to do the work. Use them. Newsletters? Into a folder. Your Amazon orders? Into a folder. The reply all emails about a project you’re only peripherally involved in? Into a folder. You can have emails that you do want to see automatically flagged. The other thing you can do to control email is to have a new address set up for clients only. That way you know when you know exactly what kind of work you’re going to be doing when you check that address.
So now you’re left with an inbox that’s more manageable. Some of your emails are going to be stress inducing – like the five paragraphs when the message could have been once sentence, or the 4 emails in a row because the sender kept forgetting one more thing. Here’s what’s important to remember. While not everything in there may seem important to us, it was important to the sender. We all want less email and we all want to communicate what we mean. Sometimes these things end up at odds. When you are checking your inbox, honor not only your own work and time, but other people’s as well. Read what was sent to you all the way through before responding. One way to cut down on email is to avoid the trap of answering only the first thing asked of you. If you’ve asked for something, read and acknowledge it when it’s received. If you can’t, let the sender know. And if you’re ending up on email threads that are not in any way relevant to you, kindly ask to be taken off.
While the empty inbox may be a dream of a different era, you can have an inbox that let’s you decide how you prioritize your work instead of the other way around.