Let’s start with a pop quiz.
Q: Do any of us feel e-mail-deprived?
A: Is that a serious question?
We need to talk about shedding the excess weight in your corpulent, noxious beast of an inbox.
Most business professionals spend 637 hours managing, writing and responding to e-mails every year—about 13 hours per workweek—according to collaborative e-mail company Contatta, based on statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and McKinsey Global Institute. That’s a lot of hours spent shuffling an overwhelming amount of e-mail around, Contatta notes, and an enormous drain on businesses—not to mention one’s psyche.
You have better things to do: companies to run, products to launch, content to create. So how can you detox your
inbox and make it a happier, more productive place to be?
Batch and tackle. Dedicate specific work hours to reading and responding to e-mail. Or, if you’re like me and can’t help reading it on your phone, at least try to group your replies—respond to a bunch of inquiries at the same time, vs. answering them one by one, as they come in.
“Set up specific time blocks to check your e-mail so you don’t get distracted every time a new message pops in,” says Alex Moore, CEO of Mountain View, Calif.-based Baydin, the company behind Boomerang, a popular Gmail management tool. Gini Dietrich, CEO of Arment Dietrich in Chicago, suggests checking e-mail before and after meetings—never during—to triage urgent client requests.
It helps to turn off e-mail notifications on your computer and phone. “Every time you hear that ding, it takes your brain over a minute to fully regain concentration,” Moore says.
If you do batch and tackle your responses, try doing so in offline mode; that way, the e-mails you send don’t prompt an immediate response, distracting you from your batching efforts. I chanced on this approach when answering e-mail on an airplane without Wi-Fi, and I realized how much easier and less distracting it was.
“When I’m focused on a particular project, I turn my inbox to offline mode so I can still work in there but not be interrupted by the constant flow,” Dietrich says.
Some people put auto-responders on their e-mail, informing the sender that they reply to messages only at certain times of the day. Doing so sets expectations, I suppose. But I’m not really a fan of the practice, both for practical reasons (with rare exceptions, it’s unnecessary) and for philosophical ones (why add to the amount of e-mail in someone else’s inbox while trying to manage your own?).
Write simple, direct responses. As with any content, brevity and clarity trump long and meandering. Respect your reader’s time as well as your own—and keep your responses direct and to the point. Use as many words as you need to reply in full to the sender, but not a keystroke more. A long-winded response is indulgent.
I often quote the words of writing teacher Don Murray: “The reader doesn’t turn the page because of a hunger to applaud.” He wasn’t talking about e-mail specifically, but his advice applies nicely here.
Yes, and … Speaking of brevity, avoid a protracted e-mail volley by being proactively specific in your response, rather than open-ended. Say you’re agreeing to a lunch meeting: With your “yes” reply, suggest three specific times and dates, and have the recipient pick one.
Saying “Yes, and …” is a rule of improv theater. It’s also a good rule for cooperative, efficient communication.
Another way to avoid unnecessary replies is to simply indicate No Reply Needed (NRN in internet-speak).
Lose the generic subject lines. “An e-mail subject line is similar to a blog post title, a newspaper headline, a movie title, a tweet, the first few words in a Facebook post, the introduction to a book. … It’s the hook,” says DJ Waldow, co-author of The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing.
Waldow says people tend to treat the subject line as a throwaway—writing generic words like “Reconnecting” or “Question” or “Introduction,” when they’d be better served by something specific and actionable.
From a productivity standpoint, ultra-specific subject lines make it easier to find archived messages. So instead of “Question,” try something unambiguous like: “Cavalier King Charles Spaniel rescue dog?”
Consider ditching subfolders. Finding messages by scrolling or searching via keyword through a single inbox is faster than looking through hyperorganized folders, Moore suggests.
I agree, but I should mention that this is a highly contested issue among productivity experts: Some argue that folders and subfolders bring clarity and simplicity to an inbox by allowing you to group together similar messages (such as newsletter subscriptions, marketing offers or work-related vs. personal).
Opt out of unnecessary messaging. Chief among these are notifications from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, all of which notoriously over-notify each time you get a response or new connection. Same goes for the newsletters that tend to pile up, unread, in your inbox. (You’ll never get to them, so don’t save them for later.)
There are tools that allow you to unsubscribe from mailing lists en masse (none are perfect, but consider them
a starting point). Check out Unlistr, Unroll.me and The Swizzle (formerly unsubscribr.com).
Other services allow you to create disposable e-mail addresses—useful for when you don’t want to fork over your real info. Among these are MailDrop (maildrop.cc), AirMail (getairmail.com) and 10 Minute Mail.
Use an e-mail manager. There are some other tools that can help you manage your e-mail more efficiently. Kerry O’Shea Gorgone, an instructional designer with MarketingProfs, likes the simplicity and intuitive features of SaneBox ($7 per month). “It scans my inbox and watches where things end up,” she says. “It’s like an intuitive and smart inbox that makes my life a little easier.”