managing your inbox

Tipster: How to manage your inbox

Fri 02 Sep 2016

There’s no single “right” way to deal with email overload, but experts agree on some basic steps. Follow these tips from Craig Ryan and you should find a method that works for you.

Email is a tool, how you use it is up to you. Do you want to read news in your email? Do you find updates from your social media accounts annoying? Do you really need daily briefings? It’s your inbox – decide what should be there and get rid of everything else.

1. Decide what YOU use email for
Email is a tool, how you use it is up to you. Do you want to read news and blogs in your email? Do you find updates from your social media accounts useful or annoying? Do you really need daily briefings or will a weekly digest do? It’s your inbox – decide what should be there and get rid of everything else.

2. Send fewer (and better) emails
If you send fewer emails to fewer people, you’ll get fewer replies. Be clear and concise in the emails you do send and limit them to one topic per message. And don’t bother people who really don’t need to know.  

3. Keep your inbox (reasonably) clear
You shouldn’t fret about reaching “inbox zero” (even the inventor of the concept, Merlin Mann, says that’s not the real aim), but experts agree that an inbox with years of unsorted and unread messages will harm your productivity – and will be a daily or hourly reminder of your inefficiency. Try to keep your inbox for new messages and those you genuinely intend to read later. Archive important emails and delete everything else. If your backlog is unmanageable, declare “email bankruptcy” and just dump everything into the archive. You can always use search to find it later. (But have your excuses ready.)
4. Be ruthless with the delete key
Get rid of ALL promotional emails. You don’t need them now, and we have Google for when you do. Delete “updates” after a day or two – life’s too short to bother with old news. Use searches to bulk delete emails by sender or subject (start with “out of office”).

5. Organise your email
Folders are the key to keeping your inbox under control. You could have folders for everything, or just for one or two key things, with a general archive for everything else. But keep it simple! If you find yourself dithering over where to put a message, your system needs simplifying. Keep track of messages you’ve sent which require a reply: just blind copy (BCC) the original email to yourself and set a rule to file it automatically in an “awaiting reply” folder.

6. Take action
There are really only four things you can do with an email: deal with it, delegate it, delete it or defer it (the “four Ds”). If you can deal with it or delegate it in under two minutes, do it straightaway. If you can’t, add it to your to-do list and file the message. You can use a dedicated folder for messages that just need a reply, rather than bother putting them on your task list.

7.  Don’t let email control your life
You decide what’s urgent. Turn off all notifications – how do random interruptions help you to manage your time? And it’s fine to keep longer emails for reading later, but remember to acknowledge receipt if the sender expects a response.

8. Allocate time for dealing with email
Make a routine and stick to it. Read messages no more than three times a day and shut down your mail app when you’re done. I try to avoid reading emails and get on with some real work for the first hour or so, but it’s up to you when you do it. If colleagues demand immediate responses, ask them if they would mind you interrupting a meeting with them to read and reply to emails.

9. Concentrate on your most important emails
It’s likely that less than 5% of the emails you receive will be important, so deal with them and you’ll be fine. Create a sample of your important messages by flagging them as they come in. After a month or so, try to identify some common criteria or keywords. You can then set up a smart folder or saved search to see your most important emails at a glance.
10. Find what works for you
Forget trying to find the perfect email management system. It doesn’t exist. What matters is finding something that works for you in this job and at this time in your life. Spending an hour or two reviewing how you handle email every six months will save you time and a whole lot of grief down the line.

Craig Ryan (@CraigA_Ryan) is a writer and acting editor of MiP’s Healthcare Manager

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