Email Management 101: How to Keep a Clean Inbox
Having a cluttered inbox is the online equivalent of having a cluttered desk. While many people argue that the cluttered system works for them, important documents, information, meetings, tasks, and messages inevitably get lost, neglected, and damaged.
Clean inboxes, on the other hand, ensure that information, invitations, and correspondences are managed in a timely, professional manner. Proper email management also enables one to focus more easily on the task at hand without having to hunt for information or suffer from the distraction caused from a long list of un-addressed messages.
By adopting some simple and straightforward processes, you can have a splendidly clear inbox, save time, and respond more promptly and professionally to emails. All it takes is a little discipline.
What is your process?
What do you do when a task comes up?
The Ultimate Productivity Rule: Do It or Schedule It
To make one's email management presses productive, one need adopt just one simple habit: do it or schedule it.
When going through emails, every email (that cannot immediately be deleted or archived without further action) must be either:
- Immediately addressed an archived/deleted
- Given a specific time at which it will be addressed (schedule a calendar item) and archived/deleted
This means that, once opened, an email is not permitted to stay in an inbox. This rule also ensures that most emails are responded to promptly.
Scheduling Tasks Using Google Calendar
Short Response Samples
For problems you don't feel ready to address yet: Thank you for the email. Let me take some time to think about this and get back to you.
For invitations to which you are not yet ready to respond: Thank you very much for the invitation! I am not yet sure if I can attend. By when will you need an RSVP? I shall be sure to properly respond by that point.
Keep it Short
While it might seem impossible to go through every email in one's inbox and send an immediate response, this becomes easy when one realizes that long and/or conclusive responses are not required.
Should you not be able to give an immediate answer to an inquiry or invitation (but an immediate response is still needed), simply say you need more time to think, and schedule some time for addressing the issue (see samples to the right).
Many people have a habit of sending incredibly long email messages. This does not mean that an equally long response is necessary. If a detailed response to an email would be ideal, but one does not have time (either right away or in the near future) to compose a properly lengthly response, one may simply respond with:
Thank you so much for your message! I would love to write more in response, but am short on time. Perhaps we can meet up for coffee or chat on the phone to pick up where we left off. How would Tuesday at 2:30pm work for you?
This lets the sender know that the message was received and appreciated, and creates an opportunity to start a proper (but more time-efficient) conversation that does not cut into one's email management time.
Set Specific Times for Answering Emails
Multitasking can lower one's IQ by ten points and reduce productivity by 40%, hence keeping an eye on one's inbox while attempting to complete other tasks is not ideal. That said, many are expected to respond to messages in a very timely manner.
By setting aside specific times (perhaps once every hour, or twice every day) for email management, one can get the best of both worlds: the freedom to focus exclusively on the task at hand and an ability to manage one's inbox in a timely manner.
Create Good Labels for Your Email Archives
Proper Archiving & Deleting
Many are hesitant to remove emails from their inbox because they are concerned that they will not be able to find them again and need their content for reference. While early email software may have made it difficult to access archived messages, most modern email clients make it incredibly easy to find email messages either via search or labels.
To ensure that an archived email can be quickly found (even if one cannot remember names or words within the email), one should make proper use of labels and folders. Thankfully, gmail makes it incredibly easy to apply labels to email messages using keyboard shortcuts, so properly categorizing one's messages takes no time at all.
A proper archival system also requires editing. One should only archive messages that may be useful in the future. Most newsletters and automated emails can be deleted, while most personal messages and professional correspondences should be archived. It will be much easier to find archived messages (if one does not know which keywords to search) if one does not first have to weed through high volumes of useless trash.
Even the most organized individual can end up with a cluttered inbox from time to time. It would be impossible to always have zero messages in one's inbox by the end of the day, and it might be discouraging to slip when one becomes to busy to properly manage one's account, but this is never an excuse to give up.
No matter how stuffed an inbox has become, no matter how many times one falls back to poor email management habits, one should still strive for an empty inbox. The more regularly one can achieve this state, the easier it will be to maintain it.