If you are anything like the average person in business today, you will be getting hundreds, certainly dozens, of emails on a daily basis. My inbox is probably no different to the average, although I think I may get a little less spam than some do, for reasons I will cover shortly.
Obviously I can only really comment on how I deal with emails, but it seems to work for me, so hopefully you will come away with a couple of ideas to help you manage your inbox.
The inbox is not for storage
First of all, the golden rule: your inbox is exactly that – it’s for incoming messages only, and it isn’t for storage.
The only messages that sit in my inbox are the ones that need my attention in the short term – either messages that I haven’t dealt with yet, or that I need to keep an eye on for today. Anything else is either filed or deleted.
Remember that 80% of your email is probably not of immediate interest, if it’s of any interest at all. 80% of the remaining 20% will be replies and conversation chains that you don’t necessarily need to retain. There is only a small proportion of your overall email traffic that really needs to be held for future reference, so bear that in mind.
Don’t keep conversational messages
There is no object in retaining for all time an email response that simply says “Thanks!”
Yet we all do it. Once you get used to the idea of reading a message, absorbing its contents, and then deleting it, you will be amazed at how your email begins to sort itself out. This has become more relevant in recent years, now that email is becoming as throwaway as text messaging in some respects – in the early days, emails were more like letters and the content was more formal and there was probably more content in there that needed to be retained. That’s no longer the case, so the way in which we manage it needs to change.
Use plenty of subfolders
It’s all about folders – I have a client folder, with subfolders for each client, so if anything needs to be retained I just drag it into there once I’ve read it. I do it manually, as opposed to creating rules, because emails that relate to a particular client can be coming from all sorts of places, so it’s much simpler to drag them across. Most attachments and related documents will have already been saved to project folders outside of my email system, so it isn’t even necessary to retain all those messages.
I have an admin folder, where I stick order confirmations, conversations with my accountant, copy invoices and all that sort of thing. I also have a personal folder, where emails to friends, or messages relating to non-business activities, will end up. There are a few other folders relating to specific activities, so you can create what you need for your own use.
Isolate messages that need follow-ups
Another important folder is my prospect and follow-up folder. Prospects are exactly that – maybe short conversations that may lead to something in the future, so I make a point of reviewing this folder periodically, and deciding whether another message or a phone call is required. Follow-ups are similar, but may be after-sale activities, so something like calling someone up after a six-month gap to make sure that the work you did for them is still providing benefit and so on. Basically, I pop messages into this folder that I need to keep bubbling under, so they don’t get forgotten, but they don’t clutter up my inbox either.
Finally, spam. I have a Gmail address that I use for all my general website sign-ups, and I find that this filters out a lot of spam as Google’s filters are very effective. The Gmail address forwards to my normal address, so I don’t need to check the Google inbox, but a lot of the spam never gets through to me, which helps.
As I have been writing this, I have received eleven emails. One of them is a despatch confirmation from Amazon, so can be noted and deleted. One is an insurance quote, so gets filed under personal for the moment. One is from a client, which I have replied to and will leave there for the moment, as I need to be aware that their web developer has a job to do, so I can follow up later today to ensure that it has happened, then that message can be deleted. The remaining eight are newsletters and junk which I have also deleted.
At the time of writing, there are nine messages in my inbox, so it forms its own little ‘to-do list’, and that’s very much how I like to keep it.
Never delete sent messages
My one concession is that I leave the Sent Items folder alone. If it turns out that I haven’t retained something that I later find might have been useful, as long as I replied to it, it will be in there, so that’s my emergency backup!
Give it a try, and let me know how you get on …