Email can be a productivity killer, but that’s only if you let it.
The physical inbox is sort of an archaic notion these days, but if you’ve ever worked in an office, then you’ve probably seen somebody who had one that was piled high. An inbox filled with all sorts of folders, memos, clippings, and other garbage that they were never going to clean out.
That seems unthinkable to a lot of people, but somehow a bloated mess of an inbox is acceptable. Well I’m here to give you some tough email love – you are an email hoarder and I am going to give you some easy efficiency tips to get ahead of it.
My methods and tools are all for Gmail, so if you aren’t currently using regular Gmail or Google Apps for Work, some of the following will not pertain to you.
Anyhow, my way of going through email is a combination of Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero (look up his presentation to Google employees back in 2007 – quality stuff) and Getting Things Done by David Allen, an awesome book on productivity.
So, when email comes into my inbox, I process email in one of four ways: reply, archive, create a task, or delete.
When email comes in that can be handled quickly, well I handle it quickly, either by writing a short response from scratch or using a canned response, which is a feature in Gmail. The latter is very useful when you’re answering the same questions frequently.
I archive emails in four different ways. There is the basic act of clicking archive when an email does not require any action from me, but I want to hold onto it. I do this with each and every FYI email I get, and it makes for a useful archive that can be easily searched.
Then there is “Send and Archive”, which is an option when you’re sending email. If you don’t do this when you are replying to an email in your inbox, that email will remain in your inbox.
Labels are great for categorizing specific groups of emails before archiving. I’ll do this with things like confirmation emails from online retailers when I buy Christmas gifts. That way I am able to easily check on orders I’ve made.
Finally, I automatically archive some emails by setting up filters in Gmail. These are any emails I want to keep, but don’t need to read as they come in. For instance, when we are accepting speaker proposals for Affiliate Summit conferences, we do not review them until after the deadline, so this large volume of emails are all archived until that point.
Create a Task
When an email comes in that requires more than a quick response, I will turn it into a task by clicking the “More” button in Gmail and then clicking “Add to Tasks”. This enables me to set a date to work on the answer to the email, and adds it to my tasks, which I keep open in Gmail as a daily to-do list.
I sort my email trash into three bins, sort of like recycling, compost, and trash, except I don’t want to recycle any of them, and they are all trash.
If I know I am never going to respond, because it’s some clown sending a press release for a subject that has absolutely nothing with what I do, I will simply click delete and immediately forget about the email for the rest of my life.
When newsletters come in, I think for a second about the last time I read the newsletter. If it was a while ago, I unsubscribe from the newsletter and then delete it.
Then there is the pure junk – I click “Mark as Spam” and feel satisfied for a second. It may well be that Google doesn’t pay attention to that feature, but I’d like to believe they do, and I celebrate just a little with each spam delete.
I also check my Spam folder in Google a couple times a day, because there is a false positive every once in a while.
My Gmail Data
You can get a monthly report that details Gmail usage at GmailMeter.com. It’s a useful breakdown of your email analytics and statistics.
Based on my Gmail Meter report from February 2016, I received 3,481 emails from 607 people, and sent 718 emails to 107 people. Chat, spam, calendar invites, etc. are not included in this tally.
One of the data points shows the “Time Before First Response” as emails come in, and with my system, I got back to 17% of people within 5 minutes and another 18% in less than 15 minutes. Overall, I took more than a day for just 15% of emails that came in.
Gmail Meter also shows the word count for emails sent and received. I got back to 5% of people with less than 10 words, 11% with less than 30 words, and 38% with less than 50 words. I wrote more than 200 words for just 3% of my emails. I need to cut that to 1% this month.
While I keep an eye on email every day of the week, Saturday is by far my least active day, followed by Sunday. On Mondays I send 30% of my messages for the week, and progressively less each weekday, but more on Fridays than Thursdays for some reason.
I can also see when during the day my emails are sent and received, and they sharply increase starting at 8am eastern and don’t let up until around 6pm eastern. There is a spike again around 8pm eastern. I suppose that is the people on the west coast clearing their inbox before they head out.
In addition to the tools within Gmail, I also use a few others to best manage my inbox.
Boomerang for Gmail
Boomerang is a really useful tool for clearing email out of your inbox to deal with later. You can indicate when it should return to your inbox and then process it. I use this a lot on the road for non-essential email, as well as evenings and weekends, when I’ll send it away until 8am on the next business day.
You can also schedule an email to drop with Boomerang, which is useful is you want to have it hit the inbox of somebody when they are more likely to be at their desk.
Sidekick by HubSpot
Sidekick will enable you to know who opens your emails, when, where they opened it, and how many times. I find this really useful when deciding whether to follow up with somebody.
It’s good to know if they saw it, or if they didn’t. In the event somebody never opened an email, I can call a couple days later without being a pest and suggesting it might have hit their spam folder. Or maybe their inbox is wildly out of control, and they need to read my tips.
This is a feature you can activate in Gmail > Settings > Labs, and it enables you to set a time when you can cancel an email to either scrap it or make edits. I seem to use this at least once a day to revise the tone of an email or correct a typo I saw as I hit send.
Apply my simple steps and maybe use the supplemental tools, and you, too, can take control of your inbox.