Contrary to popular practice, your inbox is not your to-do list. It’s important not to just leave things in there to rot. But don’t aim for inbox zero either. Let me be very, very clear. Your goal should not be inbox zero. That’s because you can get so obsessed with keeping your inbox at zero that you waste valuable time and energy making that happen and not get important work done. Your goal should be taming then maintaining your inbox so you can always focus on the tasks and projects that need your attention.
That’s because productivity is not about being busy. It’s about investing your best time (blocks of focused, energized, distraction-free time) into your best activities (the actions necessary to achieve your goals). By creating a better system for your email inbox, you won’t be losing out on lost opportunities and clients because you forget to respond to an email or can’t find important information when you need it. Nor will you be losing a bit of sanity every time you open your email account.
Organizing your inbox is especially important because people who don’t receive a response to an email they sent you tend to make an assumption about your integrity – that’s it’s lacking. They assume you’re either too busy to take on additional clients or they assume your follow-through is sporadic and therefore don’t want to be your client because they fear they’ll be ignored. Your business reputation demands a functional, organized inbox.
Now, imagine hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of emails in your inbox… For many of you, you don’t have to imagine much. Your reality is you do have hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of emails in your inbox right now and that’s somewhat understanding. According to research by the Radicati Group, Inc. in 2016, professionals send an average of 126 business emails per day and receive 88 emails. That means you’re having to deal with 78,110 emails per year! It’s no wonder you feel overwhelmed by the state of your inbox. You likely lose emails, information, and business opportunities as a direct result of receiving so many emails yet not deciding to act upon them. These costly mistakes happen too often to well-intentioned entrepreneurs who simply get overwhelmed.
An inbox full of emails is the consequence of delayed decision making, which costs you valuable time that could be put to better, more profitable use. I have found through my years of coaching entrepreneurs, that the average number of emails in an inbox at any given time is around 2,500. I have had a wide range of clients with way less and way more – I mean up into 75,000+. However, the good news is that no matter how many emails you have, the same system works to organize your inbox and take back control. My system to tame then maintain your inbox is easy to use too!
Email is the bane of most entrepreneurs’ existence. Every email is a demand for your time. Because time is your most valuable asset, you must make the best use of it day in and day out. Checking emails frequently has become a normal habit for most business professionals but in an attempt to not miss anything, you are potentially missing everything! For the majority of us, checking email usually consists of scanning through emails and leaving many of them to deal with “later” or perhaps “cherry picking” which emails to respond to, and leaving the remaining ones for another time. Both are examples of delaying the decision of which action to take upon each email.
So if you shouldn’t check emails, what should you do?
Process Your Emails!
Processing emails requires you to make a decision upon opening each and every one. You don’t need to act upon each email immediately but instead, just make a decision as to which action needs to be taken. That is the easiest way to organize your inbox and maintain it long term. Most people are capable of processing emails three times daily. I recommend blocking out THREE blocks of uninterrupted time in your schedule daily to process emails – once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. For some of you each block may only require 20 minutes. For others, you may need 45 minutes. The length of time you should block out in your schedule should be determined by how many emails you regularly receive and how quickly you can process them without error.
And here’s a tip to ensure you only jump in your inbox when planning to process and not throughout the day as you get bored or curious…
TIP: Turn off your email notifications. These chimes, dings, and rings will just distract you and entice you to check your emails when you don’t have ample time to properly process them.
The main difference between checking versus processing emails is that you DO NOT delay making decisions when you process them. Perhaps though, you feel there are too many choices of which decision to make, and are not sure which is best. By choosing from the 5 Simple Email Decisions, you will be able to quickly process emails, while creating the habit of regularly processing emails. This will eliminate the feeling of being overwhelmed and out of control, and help you organize your inbox once and for all!
5 Simple Email Decisions
This may seem obvious, however, many people do not delete and/or do not know what information to delete versus what information to keep. Their inboxes then, continue to grow and grow and grow. Unfortunately, “the more the merrier” doesn’t fit this scenario and manages to decrease productivity. Every email in your inbox distracts you like a piece of paper on your desk. If you never delete anything, how will you find important emails among all the useless ones? You might find what you need eventually but you’ll certainly use more valuable time than necessary to do so.
TIP: Determine ahead of time what types of email MUST be saved/archived. This may be governed by the agencies that regulate your professional licenses, e.g., contractor, real estate, lender, financial advisor, doctor.
2. Forward (Delegate)
If an email should be acted upon by another person, delegate it. Delegating emails does not need to be stressful.
TIP: Create a folder named “WFU” which stands for “Waiting for Follow Up.” BCC yourself when you forward an email you want someone else to take action on. Each time you receive a BCC email from yourself, move it to the WFU folder. Once a week (or even once a day depending on the nature and urgency of your work), review the WFU folder to ensure the other person has completed the tasks as requested. If not, follow up using your copy of the initial request.
3. Reply (Respond)/Then File or Delete
Do not keep the emails you have already responded to in your inbox. You will tire from looking and relooking at them, they are distracting, and they affect your ability to find important emails when necessary.
4. File (Keep)
Utilize an organized filing structure that works for you.
Naming Folders: Name folders using numbers at the beginning of each one. This system arranges your folders numerically in the order you wish to view them, e.g., 01 – Clients, 02 – Prospective Clients, 03 – Past Clients. Otherwise, your folders will automatically be arranged alphabetically, which may make folders you use all the time harder to find as your number of folders grows.
Filing Emails in Folders: Utilize an email company that enables you to easily drag and drop emails into folders such as Outlook. If you have to spend time selecting a folder from a drop-down menu, there is a better, more efficient way!
Types of Folders:
* References (move to categorized file folders with sub-folders)
* To Read (move to “To Read” folder)
Everyone receives emails that are of interest to them, but are not time sensitive, e.g., newsletters, educational resources, professional resources. Stopping to read everything that catches your eye is a mistake that prevents successful processing! Instead of being items of value, these emails can easily become items of distraction. Put emails of this nature in a folder named “To Read” then read them when you have proactively scheduled time to do so or when you have idle time waiting for an appointment.
* Someday/Maybe (move to “Someday/Maybe” folder)
When you receive emails that spark your creative juices or sound like a good idea you may want to act on I the future and don’t want to forget, move them to a folder named “Someday/Maybe.” This will enable you to keep the emails for future reference without cluttering your inbox full of visual distractions you don’t have time to follow through with yet.
5. Schedule (Create Task)
This is my favorite! Not every important email needs immediate attention but we tend to respond right away because we do not have a system in place for ensuring it gets done at a later time. Here is my simple, two-choice system that works perfectly. Either:
– Schedule in Calendar (Time-Specific Tasks)
– Add to Task List (Non Time-Specific Tasks)
Now before you begin utilizing the 5 Simple Email Decisions to maintain your inbox moving forward, you will want to start fresh with a clean inbox. That’s because if you were to jump right in to processing emails with your inbox in its current state, the visual of all those unprocessed emails would impede you from ever overcoming that overwhelmed feeling. So, first start cleaning up your inbox using the following steps:
5 Simple Steps To Tame Your Inbox
- Within your email account, create a temporary folder named To Process.
- Move all of the emails from your inbox to the To Process
- Block out time in your schedule daily to process 50-100 emails in the To Processfolder and additionally block out time in your schedule daily to process all incoming emails.
- Process every email in the To Processfolder and your inbox during the times you’ve scheduled according to the 5 Simple Email Decisions.
- Delete the To Processfolder once it is empty or once you have gone far enough back in time that the emails are useless.
Commit to utilizing the 5 Simple Steps to Tame Your Inbox and 5 Simple Email Decisions and they will become second nature in no time. You can organize your inbox! You can maintain an organized inbox! You will have a day when you open your inbox and notice that the oldest email came in today! Then you’ll get to re-experience that feeling of relief and accomplishment day after day. Put in a little effort today to significantly decrease the feeling of being overwhelmed every time you log in. Insanity stopped.