I remember a time before voice mail (yes, I’m THAT old). In order to receive a call, you actually had to be in the vicinity of the phone! If not, the person on the other end either had to keep calling back till they reached you, or, if you were at work, a receptionist took a message on a little pink piece of paper, and stuck it in your pigeon-hole, and you’d get the message the next morning when you got to the office.

It was a simpler time. Then email came along.

I got my first email account in about 1995 I think. Even then, it was the kind of thing that you only checked once a day (if that). People would still opt to phone, as email had this sort of un-urgent feeling about it.

My, how times have changed.

Today, email is pervasive. For most people, it’s everywhere we are – attached to our hip, in our pocket or purse. It flows in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and, short of shutting down our accounts, there’s nothing we can do about it. In fact, a lot of people are completely overwhelmed by email, receiving on average 100 or more emails every day (I get about 200). That’s a lot of information to process, and for many people it’s become a huge part of their days. They sacrifice productive work time, time with family and friends and R & R time, just so they can avoid getting buried by their inbox.

So what’s a connected person to do? Here’s what I’ve learned about managing email while maintaining sanity. I hope some of these things can help you.

1) Send fewer emails.
Sure, it’s really easy to just drop a quick email to someone to remind them (or yourself) of something. How many times a day do you just “fire off a quick note” to your boss or colleagues? The truth is, email is often a reciprocal sport – the more email you send, the more email you receive. A lot of us who are buried in email are in that state because we’re initiating those conversations via email, when often a simple text message, IM, phone call or (wait for it) going to talk to someone in person will do. So next time you just need a quick response, try sending a quick message – but stay away from the email. I promise your volume of incoming email will immediately drop by 10-20%.

2) Turn off all those darn notifications!
Whenever I have occasion to look at other peoples’ email inbox, one of the first things I notice is that most of the emails cluttering it up are notifications from online services. Seriously, do you really need to know every time @DRUNKHULK sends a tweet? If someone Likes your status on Facebook, is it critical that you get notified in your email? Probably not. Go into the settings of all of the social media tools you use, and turn off all your email notifications (note that most of them are turned ON by default – people just never bother to go in and turn them off). Seriously, your life will not end because you didn’t get an email that Uncle Henry made a funny comment on your latest status. And if you really do need to see what people are saying on your social networks, set up notifications on your smart phone. Those are easy to get rid of off your screen and don’t need to be deleted or filed. Fewer clicks=more productivity.

3) Unsubscribe from all those darn email newsletters!
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I subscribe to email newsletters all the time, and then never read them. If I get an email newsletter and am inclined to immediately delete it without even reading it, then instead I click “Unsubscribe”. Email marketing is one of the biggest inbox clutterers. And after you’ve read that newsletter, archive it or delete it! Don’t leave it sitting in your inbox!

4) Stop wasting time filing emails.
I used to have this intricate, organized system of folders and subfolders. After processing an email it would get neatly tucked into a folder, just in case I needed it again. When it came time to find said email, it would take me 10 or 20 minutes sometimes to find it (because I’d forgotten where I’d put it). Stop cluttering your email with folders upon folders, and either move to one folder that contains all your processed email, or start “archiving” emails (Gmail is great for this). Then, instead of searching through folders to find an email, just use the all-knowing “Search” function in your email program. I can find emails from 6 months ago within about 15 seconds most of the time using this method. (Hat tip to Tom Leroux for showing me this trick a few years back).

5) Save to Evernote.
Sometimes, I get emails with information that I need to keep, but it would be easier and less cluttered to keep it outside my email. You know, things like receipts, or access codes, or lists. Those are the types of things that typically get left to rot in peoples’ inboxes, because they don’t want to lose track of them. Then along came Evernote. You see, when you sign up for Evernote, you get an email address. When you send stuff to that email address, it plunks right into your Evernote! Here’s how I use it: I have a folder set up in Evernote called “To File”, and have set my Evernote email address to save to that file. Whenever I get a receipt or some other bit of info via email that I need to keep, I just forward that email to my Evernote email address. Then I can delete it from my inbox (yes, delete!) and go in to Evernote and do whatever I need to do with that bit of information (work on it, archive it, etc). Oh, and this works for attachments too – never lose receipt or important document again!.

So there you go – 5 simple steps to getting your inbox under control. If you do these things, I promise you your volume of email will go down by at least 50%, and most importantly, you’ll be calmer. You’ll have time again to see your spouse, play with your kids, and get real work done. Try it! And oh, please share any tips you might have for managing email in the comments.

5 Responses

  1. One, two three, yes! Number four is so true! I have one folder: Archive. If it’s not in my inbox, it’s in there. Search can find what I’m looking for. Why waste time filing? It’s something I explain to people over and over and over.

    I don’t use Evernote (yet, I guess). I use text files for data (portable!), and keep access codes, serial numbers etc in 1Password.

    1. Evernote is portable too! I love that I can access it from my desktop, iPhone, iPad, even other computers! Plus I can tag stuff, and easily include images and PDF attachments to my files (harder to do with text files).

  2. So timely. I’m working on this and I also have started archiving into 1 big archive folder (yay Gmail search!) I’m a huge fan of Evernote but having been using that function in #5. Great tip! Thanks!!

  3. Mailstrom!
    Mailstrom is an excellent tool for helping clear out unread emails by either deleting them or archiving them. And it can even unsubscribe you from certain newsletters if you want to unsubscribe. It’s beautiful!
    One cool thing I discovered. Mailstrom works by providing an easy interface where you can group emails by Sender. This helped me see who blogs sporadically, infrequently or seems to have abandoned their blog. Sadly and surprisingly, there are a lot of bloggers in those categories. Some of them have/had excellent content on the rare occasions that they produced something.

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