Dealing with Inbox Overload
Pretty much everyone in business deals with an overloaded email inbox in this modern era. If you're like me, you'll get a lot of email that just isn't that iimportant, including the SPAM that will slip through, plus tweets and facebooks posts, vendor marketing material, etc. And all of this obscures the important emails and just adds to the feeling that you are out of control, not to mention it just isn't efficient for your email system to have a huge inbox full of messages. This is especially true if you are using IMAP or hosted email where your mail is not stored on your local computer, but stored on a remote server. In these cases having thousands of Inbox items can create big trouble!
In this article, I'd like to try to help bring sanity and efficiency back to email handling by giving you some very real steps to take each and every day. This will make you more productive and allow you to be in control of one small part of your day.
Here are six things you should be doing to take control:
- MAKE USE OF FOLDERS - folders can be created for a reason, to move and organize emails so that clutter is reduced. It can be hard, I know, since you can "search" and find things pretty quickly. But sometimes emails aren't so obvious and people reply to an email about a completely different subject. Don't be afraid to create sub-folders as well, whatever makes sense for your business.
As a general rule, I recommend create sub-folders under INBOX for items you will regularly review and file or delete, a limited number that will be visible to you easily. Create a folder or sub-folder off of the root folder (not under INBOX) for everything that will be filed long-term.
Here are some examples of what might work for you:
- FOLLOW-UP THIS WEEK - use a sub-folder under INBOX, create folders based on urgency or day of week, such as FOLLOW-UP THIS WEEK, or FRIDAY. I'm using the FRIDAY approach and reviewing those items at the end of each week.
- WORK IN PROGRESS - use a sub-folder under INBOX for anything short-term projects that may go a week or more.
- CLIENTS - create a root level folder by client for any important client correspondence
- VENDORS - create a root level folder by vendor for any important vendor correspondence
- PROJECTS - create a root level folder by project name or other topic
- DESIGNATE A REVIEW DAY - Pick a day (or two) where you specifically review those left-over emails like on Friday.
- DEAL WITH EMAIL IMMEDIATELY - do NOT leave email in your INBOX unless it is something you need to get back to TODAY. Pick times during the day to review your email, it may be you can quickly deal with email as you see it come in, but more than likely you may not have the time or want to drop your other work for every email. Evaluate the sender/subject and make a quick decision -- is this something I need to address TODAY? If so, leave it in your INBOX. If it is unimportant, either delete it or file it. If it is something that needs a follow-up but not today, move it to your FOLLOW-UP folder under your INBOX.
- DON'T FRET IF YOUR INBOX ISN'T EMPTY - you do not need to have a clean INBOX by end-of-day, but the goal should be to have a manageable number of emails, all of which you've at least read, before you go home. Remember, you'll have more the next day, so try to have no more than 20 or 30 items left. If you have hundreds (or yes, thousands) of INBOX emails you are failing! Don't let this happen, it will kill your productivity and is just downright depressing.
- SETUP AUTO FILTERS - for some people, you may get informational type emails, maybe you get notifications of credit card payments or you get a newsletter or something. Sometimes these automated emails bog us down, so setup email Rules or Filters to automatically move them to an appropriate folder. On the flip side, some emails are extremely important and you may want to highlight them. Many email clients allow you to flag or change the color or urgency of an email based on subject, sender, or other criteria. A RED email in your inbox jumps out as important! The bottom line, if it is something you NEED to see let it go to your INBOX, if it is not, use a Rule to auto file it. Make it a weekly project to review anything you auto file.
- CONSIDER USING A HELPDESK - for some industries where customer support or customer service is involved, emails can become too confusing with the back and forth interactions. Consider implementing a Helpdesk system (either on premise or cloud based) where customers go to open Tickets. Any and all correspondence is then grouped by Ticket# until resolution of the issue.
- KNOW WHEN TO CLOSE IT DOWN - it can become a bad habit, always reading every email as the alerts come in during the day. But it can lead to poor productivity especially when you're involved in a big project or in a meeting. For most users, email should not be used for urgent communications and response within 5 minutes should not be considered normal. Within an office, someone can come to your office if there is an urgent matter, or consider using an interoffice IM applications for those rare occassions.
If you have a project that needs your attention, shutdown your email for an hour. Then take a break and open it up and spend 5 minutes reviewing and responding to those things which came in during that hour. You'll be much more productive!
The same goes for off hours, turn the smart phone off or silence it when you're at home. If you must check emails, do it at reasonable intervals so you have downtime with family or friends that is undisturbed.
As recently as February I had 8000 emails in my inbox, I missed emails that came in with invalid timestamps because they were not at the top of my inbox. The feeling was that of being overwhelmed.
Since implementing these strategies (many of which I had been using) I can claim success. I moved all the emails to a 2015 or 2016 unfiled folder to start clean and have not left the office in three weeks with more than 30 emails in the inbox.
It seems like such a simple thing, but it is one less burden and an easy way to increase productivity.