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Five Techniques for Corralling Your E-mail Inbox

Jan 6th 2012
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By Brett Owens

Like it or not, your e-mail inbox is likely the place where you spend the majority of your work time.

This would be fine except that it's unlikely e-mail time alone is the No. 1 source of value for you professionally, whether you bill hourly or not. While you and I may take pride in the fact that our average response time to e-mails is under three minutes, would our reputations be tarnished with a slightly longer response time?

Many time management and productivity sages recommend the noble goal of checking e-mail only once or twice a day – but many, me included, find it difficult to put that into practice in the "real world."

So, what are some practical steps we can take to improve our handling of e-mail; i.e., spend less time in our inboxes and more time on productive, value-added activities? Here are five best practices for Microsoft Outlook (and Gmail) that have worked well for me.

1. Keep your inbox as empty as possible

Either delete or file e-mails as soon as you open them. If they sit in your inbox they will drive you crazy. You'll end up looking at each e-mail over and over again, thinking how you "should" get around to addressing that item. Then, if you procrastinate, it'll be the same drill next time you look at your inbox – you'll look at the same e-mail and decide whether to act or not.

Do yourself a favor: if you decide not to act immediately, file it away in a folder. Then, at a later time, you can batch process all items in that folder.

By doing this, you'll build more momentum as you do your follow-up e-mails, because you'll be tackling items and issues that are related. This will go a long way toward preserving your sanity, because having an unofficial to-do list stacked up in your inbox creates a low level of stress that's always eating away at your sanity.

2. Use "Rules" to automatically file e-mails

I used to let every single e-mail drop directly into my inbox. What a nightmare that was. Looking back, it was a crazy practice. All of my correspondence, newsletter subscriptions, etc., came right into the same place. Yikes!

If you don't yet use Outlook's Rules and Alerts, you can find the feature under Tools > Rules and Alerts. I find the Stay Organized rules to be the most useful, where I create a rule to move an incoming message to a predetermined folder, based on the sender or subject line.

This is a great way to manage newsletter subscriptions, as it allows you to read related messages in batches, which can be a big help in managing your workflow.

(Note: The analogous feature in Gmail is Filters. You can find them under More Actions > Filter Messages Like These when you have a message open.)

3. Dial down the send/receive frequency

Under Options > Mail Setup > Send/Receive, you can control the frequency in which Outlook checks for new mail. And believe me, the longer the duration you set this option, the better off you'll be.

I used to have this set at a cool two minutes. And what happened? As soon as an e-mail came in, I was on it! Well, great, but is an immediate reply really needed? Would it have killed me not to know about the e-mail for an extra ten, thirty, or even sixty minutes? Of course not.

So I now have it set at a respectable thirty minutes. If I don't cheat by manually hitting the Send/Receive button myself, I can actually focus on a task for thirty minutes, before the bright, shiny object that's incoming mail distracts me.

A setting of sixty minutes or longer would probably be even more effective, but hey, I'm still a recovering e-mail addict – it's all about baby steps.

Remember, even by setting this to sixty minutes, your response time to e-mails will be roughly within the hour. That's still pretty awesome and will be a lot less wear and tear on you than the instantaneous response time many shoot for.

And, you can get A LOT done when you work interrupted for just thirty or sixty minutes at a time. The problem is we rarely do!

4. Close Outlook Completely

If you really have to get serious about getting work done, how about closing down Outlook? This is an advanced corollary of tip 3.

Sometimes this can be quite scary. Will the world end? What e-mails might come in while you're actually accomplishing something productive?

I have to admit I haven't yet worked up to this level during working hours, but I've found it a good thing to close Outlook (and/or Gmail) for extended periods at night and on weekends. Mobile devices can really help here, as they allow you to casually monitor incoming e-mails, while making it inconvenient to actually compose one.

5. Send fewer e-mails, especially during off-hours

The familiar refrain "it's better to give than receive" doesn't apply to e-mails, where the more you give, the more you'll receive.

So not only should you focus on sending fewer e-mails overall, but you should be especially diligent about keeping your e-mail habit on a "need-to-send" basis during off-hours and weekends. Again, a mobile device diet may provide the sufficient discouragement you need.

Since we all check e-mail 24/7 these days, thanks to the magic of smartphones, you've probably received e-mails from fellow workaholics during unconventional working hours. Don't get suckered into their game of looking productive.

E-mail volleying, like little kids antagonizing each other, is a two-way street. And remember, it only takes one grown-up to stop the madness!

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