I have been reading quite a few articles lately, which suggest using your email signature and auto-responder features to help manage the inbox craziness. More on that later.
Usually, when I start working with new clients, they are so overwhelmed by their inboxes that they feel like they will never catch up. Typically, they receive between 100-300 emails per day and have no system for dealing with them. They use their inbox as a secondary task list and are constantly “reacting” to requests and whatever else the emails throw at them rather than working on their main priorities. By the end of the day, they are exhausted; yet feel like they haven’t accomplished much.
The truth is that when email was introduced as a new technology several years ago, no one taught us how to manage it. There was no “user manual” teaching us how to handle the constant flow of requests and information. I remember my first email account – it was a shared family email, which my little brother would check and read to all of us. It was very exciting to get an email – almost like receiving a telegram years before.
Today, most of us manage at least two inboxes – a personal one and a business one. Between retailers who have our permission to email us, newsletters we have signed up for, and spam, it is hard to find the messages that are truly important. Did you know that there was a 19% increase in the number of emails that online retailers sent from 2011 to 2012? In fact, 188 billion emails were sent each day in 2012! And the numbers are expected to continue increasing.
In our attempts to “catch up” or to “stay on top of it” we end up sabotaging ourselves. A 2010 poll conducted by Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project via the Harvard Business Review Blog revealed that 60 percent of participants spent less than 2 hours waking hours a day completely disconnected from email. Assuming we are sleeping 7 hours per night, that means most people spend 15 hours per day connected to email!
There are many different apps designed to help manage your inbox. There are also expert-suggested hacks, like using auto-responder and signature features to help set expectations. Even though these can be great tools, the problem is not email; it is our addiction to being connected.
Before we can manage our inboxes, we have to manage ourselves. Start by committing to checking email only during a few scheduled times each day. Four times per day is a good place to start. When you are checking email during one of those four times, remember that you are not going to respond to every request – you are simply going to process your emails. That means you need to decide in which category the email goes – delete, file, action. The first two categories are easy. However if the email requires an action, there are generally two rules: 1) If it will take you 2 minutes or less to respond, do it now; 2) If it is a longer project, add it to your task list to deal with when the time comes.
Of course there are always exceptions to every rule, but in general, if you follow this technique, you should have inbox zero at the end of each processing session.