How much of your life is spent looking helplessly at your inbox and secretly wishing for the apocalypse as you tearfully scroll up and down? A recent study from Adobe Systems tells us that the average American worker spends 30 hours of their week checking email. Checking. Not responding, not doing work that was assigned via email, not researching answers to questions asked over email, 30 hours per week just checking email. That's insane.
Let's take a look at the ways we can increase productivity by reducing the time we spend weeping in front of our inboxes.
Remember that email list you got stuck on last year for that company you bought one thing from? Maybe you don't need to receive their marketing communications 3 time a week. You check your Facebook twice a day, so do you really get any value out of their email notifications? It may be a bit of a time commitment upfront, but unsubscribing from email lists you don't need to see is well worth it in the long run.
Email filters are incredible! Do you get general information sent to a distribution list that you're on? Maybe you need to reference this info occasionally, but don't need it the moment it lands in your inbox. Filter it directly to a folder! Maybe you want to keep your personal email separate from your work email. Filter it! Does your company send out internal promotion material that you rather only glance over once a week? Filter it!
Your inbox should be reserved for important communication. Filter out the distractions and you'll find yourself much more focused on what really matters.
Don't be afraid of the trash can. If you've already read something, already acted on something, or already replied to something, delete the email. One of the more common practices I've seen comes from the hording of conversations. Just because a conversation is ongoing doesn't mean you have to let the emails languish in your inbox. Read, reply, delete. You will always have a record in your sent folder, so no need to be afraid of documentation loss.
It can be intimidating at first, but the delete button is a clean inbox's best friend.
Too many people use their inbox nowadays as a repository of information. You get an email, and knowing that at some point, someone will need information from it, so you just let it sit in your inbox. What year is this?! Archive those messages!
Now, this can be a tricky balancing act. I've seen people create psychotically elaborate file systems for their email storage. If you have to find a sub-sub-folder to put a message in, you're not exactly saving time. For the vast majority, a single file labeled "Archive" is plenty good enough. Search functions are pretty awesome nowadays, and chances are that you use that over your file system anyways. One folder will work for 95% of people, but if you feel more comfortable with 2-3, that's fine too. Just make sure you're not investing any serious amount of time on archiving. You want to clear your inbox faster, and one click/ one drag to one folder is the most efficient way to do that.
Your inbox is not a to-do list. We all get messages that can mean a fair amount of work, but what you do with that email is the important thing. If you need more than 5 minutes to work on something from your email, put it on an actual to-do list. I've covered Doist in a previous post but there are tons of options. Hell, keep a notebook and write it down. Any option is better than trying to use your email as a task list. When you have 50 emails just chilling, waiting for you to get around to the work they require, every glance at your email has the potential to turn into a pity party. "Oh lord, look how much I have to do." turns into a 20 minute refresher course on your to-do list. Email should be fast and reserved for relevant communications.
Meeting invite? Put it on your calendar and delete (or archive) the email.
Just Do It
If an email requires just a short reply or a quick run down to the mail room, just get it done. If you can spend 3 minutes and delete an email, you'll feel more productive and keep your inbox clear of the little things.
Now, a lot of this sounds like common sense, but when you take it as a whole it can be incredibly liberating. When you're staring at your insane in-box, getting to the bottom can feel overwhelming. However, the key is to stop thinking in the abstract. Don't get sucked into the black hole of "What do I do with all of this?!" Delete, Archive, List It, Schedule, Just Do It. Every email you get will most likely require one of these 5 actions. Adjust your mindset. Think less about handling all your email, and focus on processing your email. Which category does this message fall into? Then complete the action required.
Your email is not a calendar. Your email is not a to-do list. Your email is not an encyclopedia of knowledge. Your email is a communication tool, and when you start using it for the one thing it was designed for, you'll save yourself a lot of stress and hit inbox zero in no time!