When I became principal, my email took on a life of its own. I regularly receive over 100 emails per day, most of which require some type of response on my part. Just the thought of opening my email was discouraging, but no longer. These ten steps have helped me dominate my email and they can help you too.
I’ve tweaked my strategies over the years and have finally found a formula that allows me to reach inbox zero each day. I no longer stress about it.
How much would you love to tame the email monster? This has become the proven strategy I use, and it can help you start down the pat of reining in your inbox as well.
1. Realize that email is vital for communication, so harness it. It’s the way people do business, the way they keep in touch, and a way they consume information. I tried to deviate from it and have staff instant message me (if that tells you how much I despised email), but that didn’t quite do the job. Embracing the madness is the first step.
2. When in doubt, archive it. When processing email, the goal is to keep moving. Storing email in your inbox is never the right thing. Trust me, it will build and build. Gmail has the option of “archiving” email, which stores it forever. Anytime you need to search for it again, just fill in as much info as needed in the search filter. I’ve always been able to find any email using this method.
3. Don’t use a fancy filing system. Everything gets archived once I process it. I know it seems scary to many of you, but trust me, you’ll be able to find ANYTHING you want with the search filter. You don’t need to worry about whether to put it in the file for “Dawn” because it came from her or in the file of “Project A” because it’s about that project. Remember, elaborate filing systems will slow you down!
4. Utilize “labels” to help with actionable next steps. This is where Gmail really shines. You can place as many labels on a single email as you’d like. This is huge for me, so here’s what I do.
First, I use labels to denote certain actions that are required, that I don’t have time to do right away. For instance, the ones I use are:
- !Action Required: For items that require me to do something that will take longer than a couple of minutes. These get a special label in Gmail, then I also place them in my To-Do List as a task. This ensures that I intentionally circle back to it and get it completed.
- !Evernote: For items that need to be filed in my digital brain called Evernote. If you’re not using Evernote, you should start right away. I love it!
- !Print: I can’t print on my work computer from home, so I give emails this label to remind me to print them off when I get to work.
- !Urgent: There are certain people that I want to always see their emails, so I have it set up to where they show up automatically labeled as “Urgent”. This way I see their email first, especially if it’s only a quick few minutes that I’m checking it.
- @WaitingOn: These are the emails that involve a task I have delegated to someone. It is a way for me to review the status of a delegated project.
- Reading Materials: This is great for all of those emails that have content you want to consume, but just don’t have time for right now. I usually try to fish through these about once a week or so.
I use the characters “!” and “@” because it moves them up the list alphabetically in the sidebar. It keeps them above the fold of other folders like “Sent”, “Spam”, etc.
5. Try to reach inbox zero at least 3x per day. Email shouldn’t be treated like instant messaging. My staff knows that they won’t get an immediate reply if they use email. I’ve found that checking email three times per day allows me to keep up on all of the madness without letting it control my life.
I don’t stress over the fact that my inbox is closed throughout the day because I know I’m going to be checking it later. Honestly, I’ve started checking it about four times per day lately (morning, noon, end of the work day, and before bed), but I think three times is minimum to keep a handle on large amounts of email.
Inbox zero is critical to feeling like you’ve really dominated your email for the day. If you don’t believe me, just try it for a week and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
6. When checking email, use a tool that limits choices. You don’t want to use something that slows you down with lots of options. I often love checking email from my iPhone because it doesn’t even give me the option of throwing something in the trash. I just have to archive it and keep moving.
The flip side of that is that I also enjoy opening up my computer browser if I’ve gotten a bit behind on email. This way I can mass assign things to trash if need be. The point is that choices can slow you down…so keep it simple!
7. Limit the number of emails you send. It sounds silly, but it’s an important part of getting things under control. Instead of constantly sending out reminders to my staff, I do it once a week in a “Weekly Announcements” bulletin. It’s really helped out on communications.
- They know that I only put important things in this email
- I know it’s getting read
- It’s cut off a lot of back and forth emails to individuals because everyone reads the same thing
If there are things that can wait to be said in my “Weekly Announcements”, I save it until that time. Sending fewer emails results in receiving fewer emails. It’s simple math.
8. Schedule time each day to work on your actionable labels. The labels only work if you intentionally make time to cycle back to them. Put this in your calendar or task manager each day.
9. Don’t leave email visible when working on projects. I actually close my email after checking it. Those little notifications will constantly be pulling at your attention if you don’t. Remember, you’ll be looking at it later today, so relax.
10. If you’re buried, consider declaring email bankruptcy. I wouldn’t recommend this too often, but sometimes you just need to check mark everything and then the delete button. I’ve had to do this a few times while I was figuring out a way to keep up. I found that most people will send you email reminders if they didn’t hear from you or if a deadline is approaching, but it’s a risk I had to take to get things back under control.
The thing to remember is that you don’t want to do this more than once or twice because it could undermine your reliability. People will begin to see you as someone that is unorganized. So my advice is to use this only as a last resort and make sure you’re willing to follow through on a system.
Something you should remember is that email was built for man, man was not built for email. Email, like many other things in your personal and professional life is simply a tool that is supposed to make it more convenient for us to communicate with each other.
Don’t let it take control of you. Use these ten strategies to make it work for you and you’ll feel less stressed and be perceived as more caring and in control by your peers. You CAN get your inbox under control!
QUESTION: What is your biggest frustration with email? Are there certain things you still struggle with that are keeping you from getting your work done?
The Difference-Maker Digest
Get a weekly digest of all of my latest blog posts, podcast episodes, and helpful tips to becoming a better leader of yourself, your family, and your company.