Americans spend north of $60 billion annually to shed extra pounds through gym memberships and diets. That got me thinking about the extra pounds in our inboxes and how we could shed some digital weight through a proactive email training program.
Email is essential to our personal and professional communication, but sometimes we let our inboxes get a tad soft around the middle. In fact, according to a recent My.com survey, 64 percent of U.S. Internet users have had to close an email account due to excessive spam.
After learning that statistic, I wanted to figure out a better way to keep my inbox fit. I chatted with verifiable email “personal trainers,” Marsha Egan, CEO of InboxDetox.com and author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of Email Excellence, and David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and engineer of the GTD Getting Things Done methodology.
They gave me some great tips for keeping an email inbox looking fit and healthy. How does your inbox weigh in?
1. Curb those constant cravings. We’ve all done it. You’re not even really that hungry, but all of a sudden you find yourself in front of the refrigerator. Constantly checking for email “snacks” can be unhealthy and distracting.
Egan estimates that it takes the average person four minutes to recover and get back on track after a distraction. With an average person getting about 100 to 180 emails a day, even if you are distracted by only 15 of them, that’s one hour of lost time. Little by little, it adds up -- just like those creeping calories from snacking.
“One of the biggest challenges with email is to not be in it all the time and to not allow it to interrupt you constantly,” Egan says.
Instead of dipping in and out of your inbox every 30 seconds, eat three square “e-meals” a day. Or, if your job necessitates faster responses, pick a number that works for you and stick to it. Whatever it is, commit to staying out of the “inbox fridge” during the in-between times.
Most modern email clients provide tools to alert you to important emails. Create notifications for the important people in your professional and personal life. With notifications you’ll be dipping only into healthy fruits and vegetables (important emails) and leaving the rest of the “junk food” behind.
2. Limit your portion sizes. OK, so let’s say it’s time for one of your daily e-meals. You open your inbox and two hours later you’re still working your way through the never-ending email buffet. According our experts, it’s all about keeping portion size in check and the first step toward more manageable portions is organization.
Go through your inbox with the intention of sorting rather than working newly received mail. You triage it (send it to a specific folder for later action) or delete it.
Allen notes that your inbox is not unlike physical mail or voice messages, yet most of us don’t delete email as easily because it doesn’t take up much physical space.
“If in doubt, throw it out,” Allen says is a crucial measure to take to control your inbox.
For the healthiest portion size, Egan advocates two-minute bite-size pieces. With this rule, don’t spend more than two minutes on any newly received email. If it takes less than two minutes to respond, do so. If it takes two minutes and one second, send it to a specific folder to be revisited.
3. Work off that excess email flab. Exercise is another crucial part of your email health plan. For those of us who feel our inbox is beyond all help (aka limping around the track with hundreds of thousands of emails), don’t despair. Hope is not lost.
According to Egan, the coveted “Inbox Zero” is definitely achievable (if that is your goal). But just like actual weight loss, don’t expect to achieve it all at once.
If your inbox is out of shape, start by blocking off hour-long chunks of time -- maybe once or a few times a day -- to start your exercise. Begin with the most recent emails and stick to your two-minute bites for each email, organizing and deleting as you go. The further you get, the older the emails will become, and the faster your workouts will feel.
Once you’re a week or so back, most emails will already have been addressed, so you can start organizing and deleting in larger chunks.
“Don’t spend more than an hour working through it,” Egan says. “But you also don’t want to delay. Keep working on it daily until it’s done.”
Then stick to your new, healthy habits following the two-minute rule.
Whatever your process is for organizing the emails that need action and those that don’t, Allen recommends that you keep it simple,
“Your process has to be so basic and almost automatic that you will maintain it even when you don’t feel like doing it,” he says.
We need food to live, and for many of us, our email dependency can feel just as necessary. Even though mobile means email is always with you, the sky isn’t likely to fall if you’re not constantly keeping an eye out for the next message.
Instead, use Allen and Egan’s personal-training tips and find the right email tools for your inbox management. Choosing an email tool that lets you customize your alerts, sync accounts and speed through emails efficiently will only help you along the way to your ideal email health.