Tips for Taking Control of Your Inbox and Saving Emails for Later Use
Despite the newer and newer technology for communication, email remains the preferred method to keep up with our daily business. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, however, to keep pace with the sheer volume of messages received in a day. From lengthy explanations and information to detailed requests to valueless messages, we are forced to constantly be aware of our inboxes for next steps and needed responses.
Advice to close our email and work outside of the inbox may be feasible for some, but for others, answers at the speed of business make it necessary to keep a constant eye on email even as other meetings, analysis, reporting, and presentations are taking place. Any time spent away from actively deleting, acting on and filing email can create setbacks and confusion. Many aspire to “inbox zero,” but is the constant battle to tidy inbox floods the best use of your time? Does a clean inbox denote an organized person, or just someone who has spent their time concentrating on neatness rather than on other execution? And if “inbox zero” isn’t something to which we want to aspire, how can we keep our sanity without obsessing over organizing our inbox?
Streamline via a Simple Folder Technique
Whether or not the old standby Outlook is your business email provider or you are using Gmail, folders are an option. I’ve seen all kinds of filing techniques from filing by individual, by department, by subject of content (project, program, initiative). But in the pursuit of having organized files for a future of finding emails in an instant, keep in mind the valuable time you spend sorting emails into individual file folders – i.e. the multiple places emails can sometimes go based on overlap with departments, people and subjects (“Did I file that under HR or under Conferences or under Recruiting…since it was about an HR conference, but from someone in Recruiting?”).
In fact, when it comes to filing, the newest philosophy is that less is more. The most timesaving change can be the simplest. Switch your endless folders into two simple ones each year: “2016 Received” and “2016 Sent.” File all emails into those two folders and then when you are in the folders, simply search via keyword, chronology, or name-sorting to locate the email content. No more painstakingly sorting and then filing. No more analyzing where to file. No more wondering where an email was filed if it wasn’t where you guessed. Two places. Sent and Received. Annually. That’s it. It takes the guesswork out of both the filing and the finding. Never will you look twice for an email again, and never will you take a moment to consider where an email should be archived. Better yet, if you can, set up an auto-archive in this fashion. It will save you valuable time that you can spend executing more strategic initiatives.
Detailed Guidance to Eradicate Email Chaos
In order to make this over-simplified system work, do a little work on the forefront to ensure you can easily find emails with keyword searches at a later date. Here are some tips:
- As a long conversation string develops, get into the habit of changing the subject of the email, even as the string continues, so that you can easily recognize the content of the discussion.
- Avoid using abbreviations or nomenclature that wouldn’t come to mind easily later when you have the subject in mind.
- Be clear and concise when communicating; this not only makes interaction more defined and successful, it makes it easier to later find whose action was whose, and what plans were intended.
- Don’t file any emails that require action — but also “flag for follow-up” emails that you haven’t completed action on.
- Add calendar reminders with the correct timeframes to ensure no matter how many emails pile up, the task doesn’t get buried.
- Drag emails into task lists or meeting reminders to group actions that are related. When all actions are completed, emails can be filed or just flagged “complete.” This way you can wait till the end of the month to evaluate your inbox and file all emails that are complete if that is more efficient for you.
- Keep emails that are necessary, and delete those that aren’t right away. Polite emails that say only, “Thanks!” or (worse, in my opinion) “You’re welcome!” “Sure” or “Any time” should go into the trash the moment they are read, so they don’t suffocate your inbox and create clutter to sort through when you are looking for an email that came in just a few hours ago.
- Delete meaningless emails from colleagues that aren’t work-related just as quickly. Lunch plans, reminders to sign office birthday cards or friendly notes don’t need to be archived, and deleting them in real time will save the daily clutter and help you avoid saving meaningless items without any obsession toward inbox zero.
- Better yet, set an example, and use alternate modes of communication for such conversations. Many offices employ instant messaging services, but text messages, or in-person conversations (any excuse to get up and move around a bit) work just as well and keep your inbox clean.
- Also, avoid doing any external personal email from your work inbox, not only to keep things professional, but largely to keep things clean, defined, and avoid any confusion. With multiple email boxes available on phones now, we don’t have the need we used to for receiving real time emails only at work when they concern school, children’s schedules, or other obligations.
The rule of thumb still is less is more, but the obsession with “none,” and it defining how we should work best, is gone. In the same way that the cleanest desk doesn’t always represent the most productive employee, the “more efficient” inbox can be the goal, instead of the one with the fewest messages.
Rather than taking too much time on the front end (hours spent coding/archiving)in hopes of saving you time later, lessen time spent altogether by taking a minimalist approach and using the tools technology has given you to search for what you need any time.9