Thought #18: Coping with the Inbox Blues

With the recent downpour of rain devastating many parts of California, I realize that the cover image for this post might evoke some unintended emotions given the current state of affairs here in the “Golden State”. However, this post isn’t about the havoc that rains are wreaking across the west coast; this post is about the havoc that over saturated inboxes wreak on our personal and professional lives.

Email is arguably one of the most ubiquitous tools for communication in our current times, and it’s even more important in college and careers. In school or at work, we use email to deliver urgent messages, announce deadlines, share important documents and photos, and coordinate pivotal meetings – and that’s only a few of the seemingly endless ways that we use email in our daily lives. Because email is so frequently used, our inboxes can quickly become unmanageable and burdensome.

With hundreds of messages being sent to and from our email accounts on a weekly basis, the Inbox can quickly become a scary place to be and an overwhelming project to tackle. Moreover, a great deal of us simultaneously use personal and professional accounts, which means a higher volume of messages and bigger headaches. The result of all these messages ceaselessly piling up is that crucial information gets overlooked or forgotten, and important deadlines pass by unnoticed, which is embarrassing.

With many of us silently struggling with the Inbox blues, I wanted to join the conversation on email management and share four tips on how to take control of your inbox and alleviate the stress that comes with managing single and multiple email accounts – you don’t want to miss Thought #18.

#1. Aggressively Unsubscribe

Jocelyn Glei claims 20% of the people who send us emails waste something like 80% of our time, which creates a significant drag on our productivity (see “An Illustrated Guide to Getting Over Email Overload“). While there are numerous culprits of this time drain, the primary culprit appears to be promotional mailers.

With virtually every business and organization asking for email subscriptions, it’s so easy for our inboxes to become swamped with irrelevant promotional messages, which are distracting attention leeches. This constant influx is why it’s so important to build unsubscribing into your email management strategy.

The following suggestion might sound obvious, but it’s much harder in practice. Most email subscriptions have a link to unsubscribe somewhere in a message or on their website; the easiest way to cut down on the junk and clutter in your inbox is to locate those links and aggressively unsubscribe from subscriptions that are no longer relevant for you.

#2. Use Filters

A popular concept being thrown around in the email management sphere is Inbox Zero. While there are many definitions for Inbox Zero on the web, I find Mark Vardy definition particularly compelling (see “The Ultimate Way to get to Inbox Zero“). The definition that Vardy uses states:

[Inbox Zero is] about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life…It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.

I personally like this definition because it shifts the focus from numbers to priorities. The goal of email management is to achieve an inbox that mitigates clutter and distractions to focus attention on what’s important; this is why I recommend using filters to better manage the influx  of messages and to better organize your inbox.

Ditto Tech has a popular video on YouTube that will walk you through how to create labels and filters in Gmail (my personal email provider), so you can begin the process of taking control of your inbox and kicking the inbox blues to the curb (see “Gmail Labels and Filters, Organising Gmail“).

#3. 50 Minutes 2 Times a Day

Perusing posts on effective email management, the advice to schedule time in advance to read and respond to email comes up so frequently it’s probably a good idea. In a post for Entrepreneur, Jacqueline Whitmore writes, “schedule specific blocks of time throughout the day for checking your email. You might even try marking your calendar and setting your availability to busy” (see “4 Tips to Better Manage Your Email Inbox“).

Instead of immediately reading and responding to email messages as you receive notifications on your phone, which can be disruptive to your flow and focus, try turning off email notifications and blocking out 50 minutes two times per day for email. If you suffer from FOMO, i.e. the fear of missing out, craft an auto response to explain to senders when they can expect a response and an alternative way to contact you in an emergency.

Cultivating good habits and boundaries is paramount to effective email management and the key to kicking the inbox blues to the curb.

#4. Build in Time for Revision

If it takes less than 2 minutes to respond to an email, just do it! Don’t save a task for tomorrow that can be easily accomplished today. If you’re sending email messages that require more attention, however, plan time for drafting and editing messages  into your email management strategy – you’ll set yourself up for greater success.

If you’re like me, and you make a lot of errors when writing, you could benefit from some extra time to review and make corrections. There isn’t any rule that states you can’t come up with your own email response policy. As I mentioned in too #3, just clearly communicate your policy to senders, so they know when to expect a response from you and how to contact you in case of an emergency.

Generally, it’s okay to respond to emails within 24 to 48 hours. I recommend taking advantage of that entire window of time if needed and separating the drafting and editing processes. If you follow my advice and set aside time twice per day to check email, draft a response right away, then work on revision and editting the following session. Wrap up all editing and send by the third session.

Please don’t let it be misunderstood – email management is no easy task, but it’s not impossible. With the tips and tricks outlined in this Thought, I hope that you will feel more confident to take control of your email.

If you enjoyed Thought #18, be sure to like or leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you! Also, please subscribe to Thoughts on my website to get notified of new posts.