It's been over 20 years since email first entered the mainstream. It's hard to believe that after so much time and so many new technologies, email remains one of the most popular forms of business communication.
Today, we receive more email messages than ever before, causing many of us to feel as if we are drowning in our inbox. But there are many ways you can enhance your communication without sinking in an ocean of new messages.
Getting to Zero is Overrated
You may have heard of the concept of Inbox Zero: a technique developed by writer and podcaster Merlin Mann. Inbox Zero is essentially a structured thought process for triaging and clearing your email inbox every day. Like many productivity methods that follow a structured routine, there can be a wide range of supporters and detractors. But in my experience, there are few productivity techniques that are more misunderstood than the concept of Inbox Zero.
Like most things that take on a following, Inbox Zero has a catchy name that can attract a lot of attention. Who doesn't want to have an empty inbox? But that’s not really the key to the Inbox Zero system. Rather, it's a method of attacking your email as opposed to reaching an end goal.
To put Inbox Zero into practice, you need to take the approach that you will touch every email waiting for you. Not only will you review everything that has been sent to you, but you’ll make some very quick decisions about what you will do with that message. The 4 actions you need to decide on are Delete, Delegate, Defer, or Do.
Delete - Will you never need to refer to this email again? Delete it. Or archive it so that it leaves your inbox and you can search for it later if need be. The key to this step and the following three is to never keep read email in your inbox.
Delegate – Are you the best person for this email request? If not, forward it to someone who is. You don't need to be a manager to delegate. Remember, just because you're capable of doing something, doesn't mean that you should be doing it.
Defer - Will this message take a few minutes to reply? Do you need to find other files to attach to this email? Put a label on it or place it in a separate folder so you can deal with it AFTER you've gone through the rest of your new messages in your inbox.
Do – Does this email need a quick reply? Can you respond in less than 2 minutes? Don't waste your time by putting this message somewhere else. If it’s super quick to process, do it right now and get on with the rest of your email.
By taking these actions on each email you can quickly go through a large number of new messages in a matter of minutes. And remember, don't worry if new messages come in while you are processing existing email. The goal is not to keep your inbox at zero. It’s about processing your messages fast so you can get to your most important work.
Less Email = More Time for Real Work
Of course, you don't have to be a follower of Inbox Zero to get your email under control. There are other ways to deal with email so you can enjoy less stress as a result. Checking email less frequently can have a huge impact on your productivity.
A study done by researchers at the University of British Columbia examined the effects of checking email only three times a day. In this experiment, participants in two groups sent and received the same amount of email, but while one group was asked to check email as often as they wanted, the other only checked their inbox three times a day. The groups then switched to the opposite task the next week. Researchers monitored the stress levels of both groups.
The results might surprise you : When participants were in the group that checked their email just three times a day, they reported feeling less stressed. Their stress levels were measured to be equal that of other well known relaxation techniques like breathing exercises and meditation.
Additionally, from a sheer numbers perspective the 3x/day group was spending on average 20% less time in their inboxes. As a result, they were able to spend more time on more important tasks throughout their week.
The important factor is that all participants were dealing with the same amount of email as they normally would; the difference was simply how many times a day they interfaced with it. By dealing with email less frequently, participants felt a significant reduction in stress which again, allowed them to be more efficient and effective with their time.
Thinking Outside of the Inbox
There’s no shortage of tools that promise to reduce our communication load. But there are some that are much better than others.
Boomerang is one such application for both Gmail and Outlook. Boomerang doesn’t replace your existing email client but instead gives you extra features. It can allow you to snooze a message so you can have it returned to your inbox at a better time. It also gives you the ability to schedule a message to be delivered in the future.
Boomerang can also track emails you send to see if the recipient has replied within a desired timeframe. If you don’t get the reply by your selected due date, Boomerang will bring your original message back to your inbox as a reminder. You can then decide what the next best course of action is. With this feature, you can say goodbye to flags or other labels that you need to check manually (and often forget).
Similar to Boomerang, Spark is another way to streamline your current inbox. It uses intelligent software to learn which messages are more important to you, and bubbles them up to the top. The software can also tell the difference between personal emails, newsletters, and perhaps the cause of your biggest inbox floods every day: notifications. Spark categorizes these different types of emails, making for a smoother inbox triaging experience.
There is also a great increase of other applications that are starting to replace or at least reduce our email usage. Practically no one communicates with their colleagues via email anymore: email chains are clunky, and they’re the perfect way to clog your inbox. HipChat and Slack are growing in popularity among teams. Chat apps allow you to keep your messages focused on specific topics such as projects or clients. This not only gets you out of your inbox, but it allows you to track and review important communication around a single topic. Chat apps are especially popular for internal communication within teams.
Project management tools such as Trello can also be a great replacement for email overload. How many times have you tried to find an email with a specific attachment? Apps like Trello can allow you to focus that conversation and keep files, assignments, and due dates all in a central location. Looking at the bigger picture, Trello also helps you get context around each project by viewing which list a card is on at a glance.
Don’t Let Email Rule Your Day
So how can you become more effective with managing your email?
- Consider using the concepts of Inbox Zero to speed up the way you process your messages. Remember, it's not about keeping your inbox empty. It's about getting through a large number of messages quickly and being able to identify the ones that deserve your attention.
- Stop checking email so frequently! Did you know that the average professional spends 6.3 hours a day dealing with email? See if you can spend as little as 3 to 4 email sessions a day so you can focus on your most important work. Studies show that you will enjoy less stress as a result.
- Use applications such as Boomerang, Trello, or Spark to keep your communication focused and on target. If you work with a team, make sure everyone knows how to use the communication tools within your project management system. You'll save time and a lot of headaches for everybody.
Email has certainly changed over the years and it looks like it will continue to be with us for much of the future. So take some simple steps to make it your ally and not your enemy.