Do you feel like your inbox is always full? Do you “forget” to reply to some email from time to time? Do you get an SMS from a client asking for an email reply? If yes, you are not alone, I see many people having the same problems. But not me.
I am far from very productive person. At least, I try to be as productive as possible. I run two companies. I work with clients. I do sales. I do negotiations. I get plenty of emails every day. But my inbox mostly looks like this:
WHAT IS A PROBLEM WITH EMAIL?
When thinking about electronic email, start thinking about regular snail mail. Just pretend that e-mail doesn’t exist; everything comes to you in envelopes. You get many envelopes every day, you open them and then you have to do something. If you open an envelope and you get a message from your client asking you to do something quickly, do you do your task and then leave an envelope on a table? If you open an envelope and you find an invoice from your telecom, do you pay it and leave it on your table? If you open an envelope that requires long letter back, do you just leave it there with those two envelopes we mentioned earlier? Do you repeat this 10-50-100 times a day? Probably not, because your table would soon be full of envelopes and you would have no more space.
In practice, what would you do with those envelopes? You would probably have some kind of tray to archive your envelopes. One would contain letters from clients, other would contain invoices, one would contain… You would keep only important stuff on your desk. Why don’t you copy the same system when working with electronic mail?
WHAT DO I DO?
I have my own (really simple) system on how to handle email. First of all, I have my private and business email address. They don’t mix together at all; my private email uses Google Apps and I access it only via browser while I access my business email address via Outlook for Mac (software doesn’t matter here). I use private email to subscribe to newsletters and to communicate privately. I use my business email for… business.
I Outlook, I create a separate folder for almost every project/client I’m working on. I also have Archive folder, called Aall items. I use this name to be sure it will always be on top of the list (if you use Google Apps, you don’t need to create this folder). I also have folder ZZCompleted, which will go at the bottom of the list, which contains subfolders from completed projects. I don’t have inbox rules, every email goes directly in inbox (except emails with daily bank statements).
Than I start playing a little game: achieve inbox zero as many times as possible. When I receive a new email, I obviously read it and then do something with it ASAP.
- If it’s something other team member can handle (for example, invoice to be paid by our office manager) I forward it immediately and than I archive it to Aall items folder!
- If it’s something that requires just a little effort from my side (like a quick reply), I do that and archive it.
- If it’s an email from a client with a task, I do the task and move email from my inbox to a clients’ folder so I can access in future if needed.
- If it’s an email requiring longer answer or I need more time to finish it (but don’t have time now) I leave it in my inbox.
- If it’s an email I might read in a couple of days (something not urgent), I flag it and archive it. Every other day when I have some spare time I visit my flagged emails and process them.
Sounds simple? Actually, it is. This way, my inbox is my task list. When I open it, I quickly see all tasks and things I have to do. But the rule is simple: don’t leave email to sit in your inbox, do something with it as quickly as possible!
I check my private email when I have time, maybe once daily, but as I don’t get any important emails there it really doesn’t matter.
Also, when I finish with a project, I move appropriate folder to ZZCompleted. That way, I can always access it, but it’s not there with other active folders anymore.
Problems with this approach
I can’t say I have some problems. At Kontra, we use Slack to communicate internally (which lowered the number of internal emails dramatically) and ActiveCollab to manage all projects (I do get email notifications for AC, though). Both tools helped us a lot. I just rely to much on my inbox as a task list, which might be a problem if somebody sends you something using Messenger/WhatsApp/Viber/SMS… Often I see that message while out of office, don’t have time to reply immediately and completely forget about it later. That’s why I always say to everyone (even to my clients): just send me an email and don’t worry, I won’t miss it because it will one of 5 or 10 emails in my inbox at that moment. Sending your task via Facebook Messenger won’t speed things up; in fact, it can slow them down :-).
I also rely on other people when working like this. If I reply to some email, I expect that person to reply back or do the task if needed. I archive their email after I reply and I don’t check up on them later. If they don’t do it, I don’t have a system to remind me of it (that’s why we use ActiveCollab in our agency).
- I receive many emails.
So do I. Shut up and stop whining. Unsubscribe from as many newsletters as possible, you don’t read them anyway.
- I use flags to mark emails.
Still, you have many emails in your inbox and you loose time trying to find your next task.
- I don’t care.
Good for you.
Email management should not be that difficult. But I happens to be for many people. I wrote this post to my colleagues as well, who struggle and often miss a task or deadline because they didn’t see an email.
I am not saying this is the best system out there (the title is a little bit click-bait), there might be other systems that work better for you. But the worst system is not having a system at all, leaving all emails in your inbox.
How do you handle your email?