Our email inbox is the to-do list that anyone can add to indiscriminately, and just when we think we’re on top of our emails, another round come pouring in.
Bad email habits may well be hampering our productivity levels so perhaps the time has come to rethink how we tackle our inboxes. Here are four bad email habits we might want to ditch to free up as much as two hours a week:
1. Using email as a communication default
According to productivity expert, Nick Sonnenberg, author of Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work, in order for us to use email in the right way, we need to know its purpose. “People use email to communicate internally with their team, such as delegating tasks and projects,” he says. “That’s not what it’s built for.”
Email should be a communication tool for external contacts such as clients, suppliers and partners, moving internal communications away from the inbox, thereby reducing the volume of emails significantly.
2. Retaining emails in the inbox
The concept of Inbox Zero is being misunderstood according to Sonnenberg. Its not about how many emails in your inbox are unread but how many are in there read or unread.
Having hundreds, or sometimes thousands of emails sitting in your inbox is not only distracting, it can actually be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, making it near impossible to know what’s been actioned and what hasn’t. Sonnenberg recommends the RAD system; reply, archive or defer, suggesting that there are really only three things which can be done with an email.
“You can either reply right away if it’s actionable, getting back to the person. You can archive it, meaning there’s nothing left for you to do, you don’t care, you don’t need it, or there’s no actions to take. When you archive it, it’s searchable, but it’s out of your inbox or your to-do list,” he maintains. The final option is to defer, which is the option most people aren’t utilising Sonnenberg says.
Deferring is essentially snoozing an email so it can be handled later. Gmail users have the option to hover over an email to see a clock icon. Sonnenberg believes this feature could be better-utilised; “It’s one of the most powerful features that most people aren’t taking advantage of,” he says. “If you have an email you can’t deal with today, but you’ve blocked time next Friday to deal with the situation, snooze the email until you’re ready. It will leave your inbox and magically come back next Friday.”
There are plenty of examples of emails which aren’t required until a later date, tickets for an upcoming event, an agenda for a forthcoming meeting. The email will return to the top of your inbox when you instruct it to do so, so you can action it accordingly.
3. Creating multiple folders
Having too many folders is another mistake, turning “email into a game of hot potato, where you think you’re optimizing your time by transferring messages as fast as possible, but you’re really not getting ahead. Organizing with folders requires that you pause and put the email into the right bucket.
“People think it’s helpful, but it takes a few seconds to read and drag it into another folder,” he says. “If you waste three seconds on an email and you’re getting 100 emails a day, that’s 300 seconds or five minutes a day you’re wasting. By the end of the week, it’s 25 minutes, and by the end of the month, it’s almost two hours.”
Ever searched for an email which you assume you filed in one folder, only to find it, much later, in another? This is where the archive option comes in, retrieving an email by searching on a name, subject or date range. Sonnenberg believes folders should be reserved for things which are not so easily searchable.
4. Deleting emails
Sonnenberg isn’t a fan of deleting emails, recommending that rather than having to decide if an email should be deleted or archived, simply archive all of them.
He argues: “Every decision that you have to make creates decision fatigue. You have so much cloud storage nowadays. Even if you know with 100% certainty you will never need that email again, archive it and remove one thing you ever need to think about.”
If email storage becomes an issue, Sonnenberg suggests deleting a few of the largest files to free up space.
Where to start?
If any of this has resonated with you and your inbox is indeed overwhelming, then Sonnenberg has advice which may appear drastic but could prove cathartic. He recommends archiving everything in your inbox which is older than 30 days.
“Rip the Band-Aid off and do a one-time reset,” he advocates. “You’re not deleting the emails; they’re in your archive so you can still find one. But getting your inbox down to 1,000 or whatever it is lets you go through those and then use these tools with any new email that comes in.”
Another technique to employ is to recognise the boomerang effect of every email you send, acknowledging that every outgoing email will generate more in your inbox. Keeping this in mind will allow you to think more critically about the emails you send and ultimately reduce the number you receive. Every small action adds up to potentially freeing up time to spend on more productive tasks.
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