Overwhelmed with email? Karen Eyre-White of GO DO, a productivity coaching business, shares her secrets to managing email.
When the first email was sent in 1971, I’m sure its creator couldn’t imagine the full enormity of what was to come. With that single message, Raymond Tomlinson began something which has revolutionised the way we communicate and made it easier for us all to do our jobs and live our lives. Today we can quickly and easily contact someone halfway across the world (or halfway across the street) at the click of a button.
But our email systems are only as good as our ability to manage them and use them well. All too often my clients tell me they feel overwhelmed by the number of emails they receive, they can’t keep up, and that it is a constant source of stress in their lives. Our work inboxes have become a barometer for whether we’re on top of everything or good enough at our jobs. It can feel like a daily battle to keep them under control, to bail the water out more quickly than it is coming in.
And with the rise of smartphones, we’re never that far away from that source of stress, whether we’re trying to watch a box set in the evening, spend time with our kids at the weekend, or enjoy a family holiday.
So, how can we get all the benefits of this amazing form of communication without the stress and anxiety that have become associated with inbox management? Here are my five top tips for getting in control of your inbox before it controls you.
Many of us spend the whole day in our inbox, flitting between old emails and new emails, making it difficult to achieve any focused work. Instead, I recommend deciding how frequently you need to check your inbox. This will depend on your role, but it is rare to need to look at new emails more than three times each day. Decide when you’ll do this and stick to it. You’ll be amazed how much ‘real’ work you’re able to get done without the constant distraction of new emails.
When you do go in to check new emails, work through them systematically from bottom to top rather than cherry-picking the ones that look interesting or easy. All that does is leave a concentration of less interesting or more difficult emails, which you’ll struggle to motivate yourself to clear. As you work through them, decide for each email whether to do any action on it now, delegate it to someone else to do it, or defer it to later. I recommend putting deferred tasks on a to-do list and clearing the email out of your inbox.
You’d be amazed how many people aren’t moving emails they’ve processed out of their inbox because they are not sure where to file them. I’m an advocate of having one ‘done’ folder and putting all your emails in there once you’ve processed them. The search function on most mail applications is excellent, and normally more effective than relying on you remembering where you’ve filed something.
Once you’ve limited your inbox use to three times a day, you’ll need somewhere else to act as the central control point for your work. This should be your to-do list. This should be the first thing you open in the morning, where you go when you have a spare minute, and the last thing you check at night. Aim to have only one to-do list and make sure to review it from top to bottom at least daily.
I often say this is the single biggest thing anyone can do to boost their productivity. If you’re notified every time you receive an email, it is almost impossible not to get drawn into your inbox. Turn off those pings and you’ll find your attention span skyrockets.
Emails are a wonderful tool which we have been using for decades. It’s impossible to imagine what our work life would be like without them, but it’s vital that they serve us, and not the other way around. Follow these tips and you’ll find that your inbox feels more manageable, less stressful and altogether a more positive part of your working life.