Email Overload: The Secret to Getting Inbox Zero Every Time
I hit inbox zero for the sixth or seventh time this week in not one but two email accounts which feed in 13 email addresses total. Once an impossibility, it’s now an everyday occurrence. In fact, it’s now a true mindset. Because I’ve streamlined this process so well, I figure other people would benefit from my tips to make inbox zero a true reality. This is especially important as web users have the expectation of fast replies in our fast paced social media world. My workflow works great, so I’m offering the below to those of you who may want to use these tips for their own internal processes.
Use a Conversation Email System
This solution really is best suited for those using Gmail. In my case, 12 email accounts are fed through one gmail.com account. (I also have a dedicated Google Apps account for my Mashable emails.) Why is this so important? Gmail’s mail system offers the tools needed to be an email ninja: labels and threaded emails. Plus, its shortcuts (A for archive) make management a snap.
Labels are color-coded “folders” that designate inbound emails. You can either use filters (explained later) to automatically label emails, or you can manually set up labels. Labels can be color coded so that you can see everything at a glance and know exactly what type of email it is:
Threaded emails is a unique feature that I haven’t yet seen in a third party app where all emails with the same subject line are sent in one single frame. For example, let’s say someone emails me about a possible project. I reply back to him, and 3 weeks later, he replies back to me, keeping the same subject line intact. With Gmail, the previous two emails (his initial email and my reply) are still visible in the same window in a feature known as a conversation, so I know exactly what he’s referencing and can click to expand the entire correspondence accordingly. While Outlook, Thunderbird, and other email clients let you see the replies, they’re often cluttered in a bunch of >> and >>>> and eventually these emails get much too much out of control; this threaded window functionality is probably one of the best features ever for Gmail.
While I respect standalone email applications, having true portability for your email is killer and I have no plans to move back. Interestingly enough, I was never a fan of web-based email until I got hooked on Gmail. There’s a method to this madness.
As a catch 22, those rare instances when people change the subject line actually breaks the functionality that makes this system so productive; it’s happened 2 times in the past 6 years but is annoying enough that I still remember who they were. In those cases, I ask nicely for those senders to keep the subject line intact and not change it to reflect their new reply.
Answer Everything Quickly
What are you doing about that email that JUST hit your inbox? Are you saving it for later? If it takes 10 seconds to read and reply, take 10 seconds to read and reply to it. Can you stop doing what you’re doing without being less productive? If so, stop and reply, then return to your work. (If you adopt this mindset, you won’t lose 15 minutes of productivity when you switch gears; in a real-time world, you have to multitask to survive!) If not, allocate several blocks of time throughout the day that you can dedicate to email only where you read and respond to everything in your inbox. Make sure to do this so that when it’s time to sign off for the day, there’s nothing left in your inbox.
The answering part is crucial. Once you reply, you have to make a decision on what behavior you should be doing next:
- Is the email no longer actionable by you? If so, archive it. If you’ve enabled Gmail shortcuts (use the ? key to confirm; if not, turn it on in your account settings), hit A to archive and file it away.
- Does the email require a reply from the person you just emailed? If so, file it away anyway! You don’t need it sitting in your inbox if there’s nothing actionable by you. If you need a reply eventually, make a note (I use Remember the Milk; read about my widget integration here) to follow up with the person on a designated date. You can also use Boomerang to set reminders. RTM emails you a reminder right before your task is due, so you will be sure not to forget!
- Does your email reply depend on yet another person’s reply? I work with many teams on many different projects. Sometimes, I need to get an answer from someone and cannot immediately reply to the original sender. In that case, I keep the email in my inbox (it’s actionable) but am sure to chase down the reply as soon as I possibly can. Thankfully, my teammates are responsive, so it may take a few hours or a few days, but that email eventually gets filed. That makes them good teammates. Also, if I’m waiting for a reply from someone else, I usually still take the time to let the original sender know that I’m waiting on a reply from one of my colleagues. This makes me look responsible and also gives the people I’m dealing with confidence in my follow-through. It’s amazing how many people don’t instill confidence at all!
- Does the email require you to sit down and truly think about your reply? Keep the email in your inbox. Set aside time to get to this assignment as soon as you can; make a personal goal that it will be done by the end of the day if feasible or at least by the end of the week. Sometimes this means that I’m actually “working late,” but this also means that I don’t have anything on my plate by the time I’ve gone to bed and that’s a great feeling!
As I’ve explained earlier, labels are very important to help you figure out exactly what needs to go where. With Labels, I can see everything I need at a glance and can reference it quickly via search. A search like “label:bloggers techipedia” will find mentions of “techipedia” in all emails that I have assigned the Bloggers label to. It’s an incredibly organized way to make things happen. As you can see, you can assign multiple labels to a single email, and sometimes that’s necessary.
A very important part of true management is hiding those folders. A beautiful inbox is an organized inbox. To label something and archive it, I highlight the email (or have it open), type L and then choose the label on my drop down list. Then, the email is immediately labeled (and then archived after I hit A). But after that, I don’t want to be reminded of it, so I keep my labels out of sight (and thus out of mind). As you can see in the screenshot above, I have 50 labels. I also don’t see them very often, but they’re there and that’s all I need to know.
Use Filters Liberally
I receive anywhere from 300 to 1500 new emails daily. However, most of these emails never hit my inbox. That’s because I apply Gmail filters; that is, rules that immediately archive emails that I want but don’t have time to read. Emails about new followers on Google+, new DMs on Twitter, new newsletters from my favorite bloggers, cron job notifications, HARO emails — these emails are being auto-archived. Do I need them? Maybe not. Do I want them? Yes, because they’re searchable in an incredible archive of over 27 GB of emails (oh yes, I paid for storage). I can search and find out why someone’s name may sound familiar (“oh, he added me on Twitter in April 2009!”). I can read newsletters at my convenience. I don’t always check them, but I know they’re there.
I currently have over 100 filters (107 at the last count, and I probably missed a few!). How many of you have such a robust filtering system? Last I checked, Yahoo! Mail only supported 100 filters.
Report Spam Freely
Just like I have a great system for filters, I also have a great system for spam. The lesson is this: if I’ve never opted into your email list, I will flag your commercial message as spam. That goes for social media newsletters from my LinkedIn connections. That goes for people I may have met once at a trade show who got my business card who sent me an email with a template that clearly screams that it was sent to hundreds of people. That goes for people who contact me for link exchanges with my blog. That goes for anyone who sends me messages that are not personalized and are clearly for profit and commercial gain. If you can’t take time to clearly send me a message that is truly meant for Tamar Weinberg, my spam hammer awaits.
Even though I am pretty aggressive about reporting spam, my spam folder gets very few false positives. That said, I check it 3-4 times per day to make sure that nothing is there that doesn’t belong. When you’re aiming for true inbox zero, any numbers detract from truly reaching that goal. Seeing Spam (5) doesn’t make me sit at ease.
Mute Updates Not Relevant to You
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’m on an alias that I just don’t care to be updated on. For example, someone may email moderators @ somedomain.com and I just happen to be on their list where they are all congratulating each other because their child is finally potty trained. It may go in my inbox once — and that’s enough. But when everyone else decides to reply to all wishing their best, it’s a little overwhelming. That’s why muting is so important. As long as it’s not going directly to you, muting actually works wonderfully and hides emails sent to aliases that you may be a member of. That way, you still have the emails, but they’re just not visible. To Mute, the shortcut is the letter M.
…But Don’t Delete Your Emails
With email systems having storage of 7GB minimally (and more if you elect to pay for it), I don’t understand why you would want to delete an email. Archival is just as good as deleting it except archival allows you to actually reference it again if you need some information in the future (and you may never realize when you do!) A company I work with recently hired a new person, and she told me that we emailed once before at her old job. It wasn’t a very important email, so by some users’ standards, it would go into the delete pile. But if I did that, I would never have known what she was talking about! And I’d have just had to pretend I remembered everything.
Using a plugin like Rapportive, something I have praised in the many times over as one of my most indispensable tools ever, you can read more about the person as they email you AND you can see some of the most recent emails.
Did I just suggest something that isn’t truly personalized? The email purist in me is wincing, but it makes a lot of sense when you handle redundant communications. Macros are short phrases that are expanded to larger ones. For example, instead of typing out my address whenever people ask for it, I can type “myaddy” and it will be immediately expanded to the larger format. Since I often book phone calls on a free conference call system which has a dial-in number and PIN number, I don’t have to memorize the phone number when sending it to colleagues; I just type “freeconf” and it expands to the email. It also helps when you sometimes need to send a canned response that you’d later personalize; the Gmail Labs functionality just doesn’t cut it. For my PC, I use freeware app Texter. I recently converted a colleague to the Mac equivalent TextExpander and she hasn’t gone back.
Don’t Forget Common Courtesy
I know I do a great job replying to emails, but I also know it’s a skill that took me years to perfect (again, this is something I only succeeded at recently). One of my true lessons would be to reply when you can! It frustrates me to no end when someone truly took the time to email you and yet the recipient sits on a reply and/or doesn’t reply at all. It angers me when one invests hours in an email reply, only to be met with total silence. It also irritates me when someone emails you asking for something, and you took the time to reply to their initial correspondence but requested more information, but they decided that the email thread ends there despite your insistence to keep the conversation going (after all, you asked and they merely are trying to help. Why would you ignore that?). That’s not something you’d do in real life, so why is online any difference? You’re still dealing with people.
When possible, take time to reply. I don’t care if the response is ultimately a “thanks but no thanks,” it’s still more suitable to being totally ignored.
What about Holidays or Vacations?
Yes, I really do reach inbox zero on a daily basis. And yes, I really do receive hundreds of emails per day. Sometimes I do sign off for the night and there are still emails in my inbox simply because I didn’t have time or needed someone else’s help to reply. Sometimes I even step away for longer periods of time. I observe the Jewish Sabbath AND Jewish holidays (25-75 hours of downtime minimally) and don’t touch the computer or any electricity at all during those times. While the recovery of total disconnection is a bit of a challenge and I feel buried, if you’re truly motivated, you can make this system work and still take some breaks just as long as you’re willing to work at achieving inbox zero on the days or even hours that follow (it’s doable, I promise).
Your To-Do List
The best way to handle inbound email is to consider your inbox your to-do list. Do you feel at ease when there are items on that list knowing that you’ll have to get to it sometime? If you aspire on a daily basis to clear your list, you’re well on your way to getting closer to inbox zero.
As most people who have emailed me can attest, I reply within minutes and never longer than a day (with some aforementioned exceptions). The system works for me, and with some small tweaks in your approach, it hopefully will work for you. Let me know if you try this and what you think about it.
Do you have any other ways to manage email overload? Sound off in the comments.