30 Tested Ways to Conquer Your Inbox Fast!

Get a sinking feeling whenever you open your inbox? Here's how to change that!

Posted Sep 30, 2014

Do you get a sinking feeling whenever you open your inbox? Does answering emails take up hours of your time? Is email that one thing on your to-do list that always seems to sit there and never get crossed off? Yesterday I posted an article about email’s impact on our brain - in short - it can dramatically influence your well-being, productivity and stress levels.  This morning it had had thousands of views and climbed to the top of the “most read” article on Psychology Today. Why? Because we all face the same struggle: How to deal with email without letting it take over our lives. 

I don’t know about you but I get a lot of emails. Also, I don't have time for email. I've been searching for an article on "How to Run Your Emails Rather than Have them Run Your Life" but have not found one. Or at least, couldn’t find one to answer all of the scenarios I encounter.  So I decided to just work it out with my inbox myself. I've got a system down and I have saved hours of time. So I thought I'd just write the article I was looking for and share it with you. Even if you adopt just a few of these tips, you may save hours out of your life - to go do the things you actually want to do. I've put headers so you can skip to the ones you don't already know as you read down the list (and so you save yourself some time). 

Yes, it’s long! But the point is that it gives you lots of options. Choose even just 1 or 2 and you will save yourself so much time! 

TAKE CONTROL & BUILD RESILIENCE

Someone brilliant once said emails are "someone else's to do list for you.” Right they are.You can either let your inbox dictate your life or you can dictate the life of your inbox. The state of your day depends on the state of your mind. Here’s what I mean. If the first thing you do in the morning is read your email and let yourself be jolted around by the demands and stresses it awakens in you, then you are letting it dictate your life and well-being. 

Here's how you take control back: 

1) Start your day with a routine that sets the tone. Spending those first 20 minutes of your day focusing on things that nourish you will set the tone and build the resilience you need. Whether it’s running, meditation, yoga, a walk in nature or just cuddling with your family or dog, do it! Do that first, do NOT check your email first.  Check out research on meditation’s benefitssocial connection, breathing, and - believe it or not - idleness! They all boost your cognitive and creative resources as well as your happiness. I've created two short meditations you can download and try: a gratitude meditation, and a loving-kindness meditation, both based on research showing their benefits. 

2) If you have a creative project or work assignment to complete, do it first thing on your to-do list. Check your email later. If you don’t complete your important work first, you will spend most of your energy on email and, by 5pm, you will still not have started your project and you will likely have drained all of your mental and creative resources. I love Brian Tracy’s great metaphor “eat that frog” (here’s a short clip illustrating it).

3) Decide how much time you will give your inbox, instead of letting your inbox decide for you. Do you have work projects lined up? Do you have things to complete? Errands to run. Create a to-do and schedule for yourself before you even THINK of opening your inbox. Schedule in email time too but keep it in its place, i.e. AFTER your other priorities

So what about the smartphone that lets you check your email all day?  Research shows we have a hard time “doing nothing” (in fact we prefer electric shocks to idleness!) which is why we can’t even stand in line at the checkout counter without refreshing our email. Again, what choices are you making for your life? Do you want to be jolted around? Do you want to be a slave to the stream of demands coming your way? If not, there are other things you can do with your wait time like daydreaming, observing the world around you, smiling at a baby. Smartphones didn’t exist 10 years ago. People did other things in checkout lines. Still not persuaded? Think you’re being efficient? Research shows that idleness, spending time doing nothing and daydreaming increases your productivity, creativity and ability to think outside the box! If you cram every second of every day with something, you’re missing out.

So what about work demands and colleagues that assume you are checking your email all day? Believe it or not, people will respect you more if you aren’t available every minute of the day. If they know they can always reach you and you will always answer, they will ping you continuously for every little thing. If, however, they know that you only check email twice a day (say 10am and 3pm), then they begin to actually respect your time rather than expecting you to be at their beck and call. And you’ll actually end up getting more work done because you’ll actually have an invaluable commodity in which to work: time!

OK - now that you’ve figured out how to run your inbox rather than letting it run you, here’s how you save time when you actually go through it:

SAVE YOURSELF TIME:

4) Divide your personal inbox from your work inbox

The most inefficient inbox is one that pulls you in multiple different directions ("honey, the babysitter's sick, can you pick up the kids from daycare?" followed-by "the budget numbers are off, we need you to revise them" followed by "this is a friendly reminder from your local garage that your car is due for an oil change"). Research has shown that distractions and multitasking will slow us down and can be an enormous impediment to getting things done. Keep each inbox focused on its specific purpose: work/personal. If you have a side job or a volunteering gig, consider keeping a separate inbox for those as well. Or at least file them differently (more on filing later). 

5) Only work on your MacMail or Outlook Do you realize that if you only work on your email through a web-browser, you are wasting HOURS at a time each week? Think about it, it takes a few seconds to log into your email, then to click on a new email, then to click on "reply" then to send that email, then to return to your inbox. All those seconds ADD UP my friend! Into hours! If you work with IMac or Outlook, you can work an email and, while it's being sent and processed, immediately get onto the next one. If you delete an email, you can immediately move onto the next one. You don't have to wait for the web browser to refresh each time. People, save yourself some time so you can go live your life! Oh and if you do use Macmail or Outlook, make sure to remove the option that shows you a clip of new incoming mail at the top right corner of your screen. While you’re working on one email, you don’t want your mind to be diverted by another email on a different subject. 

6) Don't Let Spam/Advertisements/Newsletters Waste Your Time

- Most good email programs (e.g. gmail) will automatically take care of spam

- Receive a lot of advertisements (e.g. from an airline) or newsletters (from an organization you subscribed to)? Set up "filters" to direct these emails directly to the trash, “unsubscribe” from them (the link to do so is usually at the bottom of the email), or, if you plan to read the newsletters/offers at some point, have them redirect to a folder that you label as a “LATER” folder to read when you have time.

7) Stop Multitasking Your inbox itself is a multitasking site: with emails coming in from various people asking for various things. Save yourself more trouble by avoiding other forms of distraction as well. Most people work with their personal inbox open, their work inbox open, their social media on, and who knows what other sites open: People magazine? Google News? Sports? Facebook? Text messages coming in? This is the best way to waste away your life! If your mind is constantly jumping from one thing to the next, you are going nowhere fast and research shows you could be as much as 40% less productive! You will end up more tired, less satisfied with your day, and will get less done. The result? More stress as deadlines start looming. If you have to have them open because you're waiting for an emergency response - just have your phone on instead.

HOW TO KEEP YOUR INBOX EMPTY

Think of how depressing it is to open an inbox that says 2,759 messages. If this is your case, you cannot imagine the joys of an empty mailbox! Learn to file, delete and answer! Here's how.

8) How Can I Delete if the Inbox is Reminding Me of Things To Do? That's not your inbox's job, that's your to-do list's job. You need one online that you can access from anywhere? Plenty of options there too including Evernote - which is what I use.  If it's sitting in your inbox, you will be reminded of it constantly and at a time when you're busy doing other things, it will cause unnecessary stress not to mention distraction and therefore time and energy. Once on your to-do list, you can also organize it, schedule it at a time when you're doing other similar things. 

9) How Do I Keep Track of People/Follow-Up? Need to manage a team and does email help you keep track of who is doing what? Again, set up an action plan/to-do on a shared googledoc. Or use a task management program like Asana. 

Worried that you won't remember to follow up with someone? For example, you emailed them, they agreed to meet you, then they didn't respond within a day or so and you want to remember to ping them again without it appearing like you're hounding them. Just add it to your to-do list or calendar. Or create a “Follow-up” file in your inbox and file your emails in there. I personally have a “Follow-Up” list on my to-do list. 

10) How do I stop? Great question! As you answer emails, responses will keep flooding in. When do you stop? Check out a really cool technique developed by Tony Hsieh: Yesterbox. It cleverly limits the amount of emails you will need to answer daily! Check it out here.

MORE COOL TECHNIQUES

11) Dictate Your Emails! No, I'm not talking about getting a personal secretary. I'm talking about Dragon Dictate or even your Mac’s built in dictation software. You speak way faster than you write. You can literally write a 3 paragraph email in a few minutes of dictation (please don't write 3 paragraph emails unless you want the same length written back to you!). Guess what else you save apart from time? Shoulder cramps, and the pain from sitting cramped over your computer for hours. Consider dictating other things in your life (documents? articles? etc).

If Filing Emails Doesn't work For You 

This is advice that's often given, file things in "today" and "Tomorrow" etc… well what's out of sight is out of mind for me, especially since new emails keep coming in and dragging my attention away. I tried this technique and never ended up getting to my folders so here's what I do instead: 

12) Star & Answer the Urgent/Very Important Emails and Then Answer the Rest in Bulk Later

Go through your emails quick. Start the ones that are either urgent or very important. Then answer those, leave the rest as you go about your other priorities. Then goo home, make yourself a cuppa, put on your dictation headset and burn through those emails starting with the stars!

13) What About Those Emails with Cool Ted Talks, Links and Youtubes? For stuff you want to read/watch but don't have time for, use evernote or another filing system or even an email folder where you store links to articles you want to read, youtube videos someone thinks are funny enough to send to you etc. If filing works for you, file as a "to watch/read" folder

14) Delegate Emails. One of my friends owns a successful yoga studio in a major city. She has 20 employees but still was answering all of the info@ emails directed to her business. As the owner, she somehow assumed she should be doing this. if you have people working for you, train them to answer the basics, create FAQ's on your company website, work on the things only you can do and have others schedule your appointments and answer FAQs. Her assistant now managers her inbox and, instead of having to answer 30-40 inquiries a day, she only has to answer the 3 emails her assistant designated as applicable only to the owner.

15) Consider the 5 sentence email technique  - and include a link to it at the bottom of your emails so people understand why you’re sending such terse responses.

16) Automatize Do you know how many hours of your time you have spent writing "Dear So and So" and "Best Regards, Your name; Sincerely, Your Name; Best Wishes, Your Name; Have a Good Day! Your Name"? Gretchen Rubin recently shared that she has stopped signing emails altogether as a way to save time. Although I like the idea of just writing about my topic, there are many emails that simply need to be formal or in which you want the tone to be respectful or friendly, for those, I suggest having token signatures that include a type of greeting that best suits + your name and affiliation. You can save this as an option in your MacMail or Outlook and simply press "add signature" and bam. One click instead of typing and formatting away. E.g.  

Sincerely,

Emma

Emma Seppala, Ph.D.

Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education | Stanford University | twitter.com/emmaseppala 

or 

OXOXOXO

Em

17) Adopt a Style that’s Friendly But Minimalist. You know people who always respond with one sentence (or maybe 3 words). You start to get used to the fact that their emails are that way. You understand that they are busy. How do they get away with that? That’s just what they do. There’s no reason that you can’t change your style to being short & sweet. 

18) If you have to write a long explanation, call. Pick up the phone, it will take less time, you will give you a break from your screen, and you will avoid back-and-forthing for hours. Save yourself time. If you write a long email you risk 1) being misunderstood and 2) using up a lot of your precious time. So call. Things are always more easy to explain in person. 

19) Adopt a program that sorts your email for you like Sanebox. 

HOW TO RESPOND EFFICIENTLY

Your goal should be to not build a "string” of back-and-forth email exchanges on the same topic. 

21) Meetings Emails: The "When shall we get-together for brunch"/"Meet about the FY2014 Budget"  Suggest a time/day to meet them and insert into your calendar. Suggest a few follow-up times/dates. Chances are, they will say "yes that works" for at least one of those times. One exchange, bam. You saved time instead of back-and-forthing about "times that are open in your calendar.”  

22) The "Hello, I love your life, please give me advice on how to get to where you are from where I am" email Chances are, you've got some really good advice to share here (I often get emails from high school or college students asking me how they can do what I do). But it's always the same question. Write a template, store it where you can easily access it (for example, in a folder in Evernote), cut, paste and BOOM inspire a young person with your words of wisdom and experience!

23) The "Hello, love what you do, would love to meet up over coffee to chat and pick your brain" email. 

- These are the most cryptic that leave you asking "What in the world do you want exactly?” Picking my brain sounds a little daunting.

- If you actually have time in your jam-packed schedule and you'd like to meet them, go to "Meetings Emails" above. 

- If you're not sure because the sender's agenda is vague but you still want to support them, send the following template "It's great to hear of your interest. Given my current schedule, my time is unfortunately quite limited. Please send me the details regarding what you would like to get out of this meeting exactly." 

- If you're not interested but would like to help them, introduce them to someone who may be more helpful. Adam Grant describes the brilliant approach of Adam Rifkin: treat your inbox like your opportunity to make a difference. In just a few minutes of typing (some quick advice, an introduction, or agreeing to meet for coffee)

- Delete. 

24) Get a lot of emails like this?

- Then you probably have a website - get your tech guy to create an "FAQ" section on your website. Redirect people to your FAQ.

25) Give a lot of talks for which you always get the same request, e.g for your photo & bio?

- Then you probably also have a website - make your bio/resume & photo downloadable from your website. Redirect people to your website.

26) Establish acronyms with colleague: (JFF ("just for fun" or URGENT: Followed by Title of Email ) as title, so people know what they need to open immediately vs. what they can look at when they take a break 

27) Agree to skip forms of politeness (e.g. Dear So and So, and Best, So and So

28) Agree to be judicial with the "reply all" button. If the whole team does not need to see your reply to the person that emailed, then don't CC everyone.

29) Don't send an email when you don't want a reply. It's nice to be polite, but sometimes there's no point in sending an email just to say "thank you" or "got it." 

30+) Can't get enough? Get more great tips by:

Adam Grant: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/give-and-take/201306/6-ways-get-me-email-you-back

Email Charter http://emailcharter.org/

Scott Berkun http://www.fastcompany.com/3017396/work-smart/is-there-life-after-email-yes-and-its-amazing?partner=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+fastcompany%2Fheadlines+%28Fast+Company%29

Robyn Scott https://medium.com/p/a88ad971cef8

Tim Ferris has a number of tips too you can check out!

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Emma is the founder of Fulfillment Daily, science-based news for a happier life.

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© 2014 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.

Photo Credit: Lara Laing