Email management – both a blessing for your small business and a curse. You can use it to build and transact relationships, both professional and personal. And you can use it to inform, educate and inspire yourself and others about what’s possible in the world. But it can also be a burden, a constant distraction full of time wasters and bright shiny objects.
In an ideal world, you’d be able to make email work for you, you’d be in control over how much time you spend on it, and you’d make sure you get maximum output in terms of productivity, creativity and all round relationship building.
If that’s not your experience currently, you might want to read on. I’ll show you how you can cut the amount of time you spend on email by 80% or even more. Think about how much time you spend on email management currently and imagine the difference it would make if you could cut it by 80%. Or even if it’s only 50% would that still be useful?
Probably the biggest time waster of all with email is the use of the email inbox as a ‘to-do’ list. That was my modus operandi for years and I know it still is for many, many folks. Are you one of them?
Here’s why it doesn’t serve you when it comes to trying to leverage your business efforts.
1 – The contents of your inbox are constantly changing. When new stuff keeps arriving, it means you have to constantly reassess where you are at and what your priorities are. Not only does this take your focus of what you are doing currently, but it disturbs any ‘plans’ you may have made in terms of getting things done in the current time frame.
2 – Each email that arrives in your inbox has a different ‘context’. Some are important, some aren’t. Some are addressed to you specifically, some are sent to you in cc ‘ for your information,’ and others are just bulk emails of which you are one of hundreds or even thousands of recipients. Some require action on your part, some do not.
And so on it goes. The contexts are many and varied, with each one calling on a different part of the brain and requiring a different form of processing and/or follow up. Though this may make the day ‘interesting’ it reduces your efficiency and productivity dramatically.
3 – The inbox is full of ‘bright shiny objects’, pleasant distractions that are wonderful for relieving boredom but which kill your productivity at the same time. (Yeah, as boring as the essential stuff may be at times, it still needs to get done). Some say these bright shiny objects are actually chemically addictive, giving short sharp shots of dopamine that act as a bit of a pick-me-up (but not necessarily as a ‘get-it-done’).
4 – There are a ton of other important tasks in your business that don’t fit the email ecosystem that will constantly get bumped by incoming stuff driven by other people’s agendas. Maybe you know this already and ‘get around it’ by emailing yourself tasks so they show up on your radar? (Insert quiz show fail buzzer sound here).
So, if you really and truly want to cut your email management time, the first step is to reassess the role of your email inbox in your life. The inbox can certainly be an input into your to-do list but don’t make it a to-do list itself. If you don’t own your inbox, your inbox will own you. Your choice. Let’s deal with it now shall we.
Following is a synthesis of ideas I’ve picked up from various sources. The term email triage has been used before but I like to use it because it’s a perfect description of both the intention and application of the technique. (Charlie Gilkey has a program called Email Triage. I haven’t tried it but if it’s from Charlie it will be good and at only $10 it might be worth a try)
In a nutshell it’s a sorting and prioritizing process where I decide the next action for an email very quickly. If there is a next action, then it becomes part of my normal daily to-do and task management process. Using this process I end most days with ‘Inbox Zero’, self explanatory status that productivity geeks like me aspire to. I follow these steps but feel free to adapt it to whatever suits you.
On arrival every email is sorted without me even knowing it’s there. I’m a Gmail and Google Apps user and I use Sanebox to do my first filter process (pricing is from about $5 per month). I haven’t tried Gmail’s standard category system as that was introduced after I started with Sanebox but I daresay it would work with that as well. Sanebox works across platforms so if you’re an Outlook, Yahoo, AOL or ,insert your email tool of choice here>, then it would work for you too. (It works via ‘IMAP’ which is a pretty standard protocol).
You can also set up filtering using ‘rules’ within your email client but they do take time to set up and can be a pain to change so I let Sanebox do all that for me. I literally drag and drop and email once to ‘train’ Sanebox for that contact and it remembers that action for future emails. As contacts become more/less important I’ll drag it to a new folder to retrain it.
My mail gets filtered one of three ways:
Inbox – folks that are ‘close’ to me, those I am engaged with on a project or task with currently and other ‘important’ emails that need my personal attention. This folder catches probably 15-25% of my emails.
Later – Invoices, receipts, support tickets, travel tickets, booking slips, etc. Reference emails that are fairly important, that I need to have a record of and/or that may need some action from me. This folder catches another 15-25% of my emails.
News – Subscription emails, newsletters and other stuff that won’t stop the world spinning if I don’t read or action them. This folder catches 50-70% of my emails.
I estimate Sanebox saves me about 2 hours per week in time I’d otherwise waste sorting emails so it’s well worth it to me. The steps below help cut my processing time further. (If you follow the link to Sanebox and sign up you can get two weeks free use of Sanebox plus a $5 credit in your account.)
No points for guessing what happens here. At the beginning of the day I go through each folder and sort them manually. I go through all of the steps on the Inbox before progressing to the Later folder then the News folder last. If I’m pushing a deadline on something or have a plane to catch I’ll just to the Inbox and take a quick look at the Later folder to see if there’s anything needing my urgent attention.
I don’t open any emails yet. I can tell by the subject line if something needs a closer look or not. On the first sweep I’ll find emails I can comfortably delete, tick the check box next to them, then do a bulk delete.
Then I’ll find those I know I can comfortably archive without deleting, tick the checkbox, mark as read and then archive them.
This processes about a third of my emails within about a minute. You may need to train yourself to be ruthless with your judgment but you’ll be glad when you master this step.
Time now to look at each email individually.
The flow chart below shows the decision making process I go through with each email. Don’t be alarmed by the size of it or the number of steps. Once you’ve done it a few times the decision making process is actually very quick. The action items or the reading (if required) will take a little longer but if you stick to the process it doesn’t take long at all.
(You’ll find a couple of of explanatory comments relating to the flow chart and a link to a pdf version below the image).
ASANA (www.asana.com) is my task and project management tool of choice. Insert your preferred tool wherever I reference ASANA. Even if pen and paper is what you use for your to-do list then that’s perfect. (I’m on Asana’s free plan)
EVERNOTE (www.evernote.com) is my archiving and reference tool of choice. I’ve been using it for five years now and can’t imagine life without it (I’m drafting this blog post in Evernote in fact). It syncs up with all my devices so I know I can access my reference material from almost anywhere. If you don’t use it that’s fine but I expect you have some sort of archiving system already (save to your hard drive, print and file…). I have an Evernote Premium account at $45 per annum but the free plan would be suitable for most.
POCKET (www.getpocket.com) is where I save web pages that look interesting but I don’t have time to read now. It also syncs with my other devices so it’s great for fining reading material when you are lounging around, waiting somewhere, traveling, etc. I’m on the Pocket free plan.
To ‘star’ an email in Gmail is simply to mark it as important. Most email clients have a similar feature.(PS – You can download the email flowchart as a pdf here if you like)
Once I’m done with my initial sort for the day, I turn my incoming email off using Inbox Pause. Inbox Pause is for Gmail only but your preferred email client should have something similar (if not I’d consider getting another email client). Turning it off is important as it stops all those dopamine fueling unread mail counts and reminders that pull you away from important work to stuff that slows you down.
I could of course close the Gmail browser but I still need access to my email to search for useful info so pausing incoming mails is the best option. I’ll unpause and check the inbox two or three times a day and will check the Later and News boxes again maybe once (if that).
So there you have it, that’s email triage done. From go to whoa, I rarely spend more than 15 or 20 minutes on this entire process. Importantly, it gets everything in its rightful place.
Tasks end up where tasks belong and get prioritized based on everything I’ve got going on in my business rather than just because they are freshly arrived in my inbox.
Reading material ends up where reading material belongs and I get to read it when I’m specifically set up for reading.
Reference material ends up where reference material belongs and I can easily access it if I need to.
Overall it’s a process that leverages my time efficiently and frees me up to get on with the important stuff in business and life. How much time you will save will depend on how you currently manage your email. If you try it, it may take a week or two to find your flow with it but I promise you, once you master it you’ll own your email inbox like a boss.
Got any email tips or questions you’d like to add? I’d love to hear them so please share them in the comments box below.
I've been self-employed since I was 19 (and that was quite some time ago) and have owned manufacturing, service and consulting businesses ever since. Every business goes through stages and each stage in each business needs a different strategy to flourish and prosper. I can teach you about the stages and the strategies to shortcut your success.