Working toward inbox zero

Recently, I heard a statement that goes something like this…. ‘Email is someone else’s task list for you to complete today’. I must say, I tend to agree. Email can be an incredible drain on time and efficiency and is not always the best use of time and efforts. It can be incredibly distracting and each moment spent checking emails can break momentum when trying to achieve daily tasks and outcomes. So, what are the most effective methods to remove the drain email can place on individuals, to make your business leaner and to also win back time?

Here are my top tips for taming your email and how to work towards Inbox zero.

Set specific times to deal with email

This is one of the most effective ways to increase productivity. Turning email off, on your computer and mobile devices, can be incredibly empowering and removes dreaded email distraction. When doing this, also turn off email notifications to ensure you are not constantly interrupted and tempted to open your email. To get even more done, turn off notifications from all apps (social media included) so you are not tempted to break your focus or work flow.

In our business, we specifically used this technique with one of our staff and his productivity increased significantly. We also implemented a ‘Social Media Policy’ to ensure all staff were aware of what was acceptable and what was not when at work. For this staff member, we set two specific time periods during the day where he was able to check emails and this allowed him to become more focused on his other work tasks. If you apply these rules to yourself or a member of staff, remember to enforce the rules and follow up to check progress and if the rule requires updating. I.e. Longer periods to access and respond to email. Tweak and work on getting the right balance to achieve the best work flows and efficiencies. People tend to thrive on routine and systems and this was especially true for this staff member. Apply the rule across the board in your organisation, or only where necessary, as some staff must access email on a constant basis.

Share email tasks and responses with your team

Do you have email that would be better attended to by someone else? Do you also have significant busy periods where attending to your own email is difficult? If so, you could reduce email inbox overwhelm by sharing and/or redirecting your emails to other staff. Even if they only delete and clear your SPAM or subscription emails (ones that do not require action), this can be a great help.

If you don’t have staff, engaging a remote Virtual Assistant (VA) can be incredibly liberating and worthy of consideration. Shop around to see if you can engage someone to deal with your pedestrian everyday tasks, not just email. You will be amazed at the time freed up when handing these tasks over. This also helps in reducing task overload and overwhelm.

Delegate email (where possible) and when enjoying time with family/friends and/or whilst holidaying. Only deal with email every 24 to 48 hours when on a break, if you must! Use auto responders to let people know you will not be attending to your emails, when you are due back and who they should contact instead if their enquiry is important. This will reduce any anxiety over not receiving a reply from you over this time frame.

Don’t fret over the unimportant stuff

Use a single touch approach to dealing with your email. Be tough on yourself and don’t allow FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to take over. Look at the email once and do the following:

  1. Do I need it, want it and/or do I need to act upon this?
    • No – delete it and move on
    • Yes, I want it but I don’t need to act upon it – file it, it’s information I need to reference later
    • Yes, I want it and need to act upon it now – process it and move on to the next email
    • Yes, I want it but don’t need to act upon it now – move it to a ‘Follow Up’ folder for processing at a later date and time when you have more availability
  1. Keep yourself focused. Do you really need to register for that subscription, attend that webinar or save that file? Will I really use it later? Take the FOMO out of your approach and delete away.
  2. Remember to concentrate on the important stuff only and let people know if you are going through a busy period. Ask people to follow up with you if you are unable to attend to something that is not immediately important right now.

Implementing the Eisenhower Matrix

Another way of dealing with email and tasks is to use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. I personally use this principle with all of my task lists. The matrix consists of a square divided into four boxes, or quadrants, labeled: 1) Urgent/Important, 2) Not Urgent/Important, 3) Urgent/Not Important, and 4) Not Urgent/Not Important.

This forms the basis for making decisions about what needs to be dealt with first and what demands priority. To explain it further, this is how I use it on a daily basis (note I have changed the names slightly to assist in comprehension of what action needs to be taken):

  1. Urgent and important – Things that you must do now
  2. Not urgent but important – Things you should be planning now
  3. Urgent but not important – Things that you should be reducing or eliminating through process changes
  4. Not urgent and not important – Things you should be avoiding or doing at a personal level.

Note to number 4: I put all of my personal at home tasks in here so that I can remind myself of projects which need completing on a personal level. This doesn’t mean they are completely unimportant, as the achievement of some personal tasks can change the way you work and deal with life, but they are set aside so that they are separate from my work tasks and priority list. If a personal task is going to help in your business, then move it up in the priority list.

Once you start using these principles, it will allow you to become more ruthless in deciding what you need to deal with straight away and what can wait.

Work smarter not harder. Practical tools you can implement right now

  1. Create folders/subfolders and auto file emails by using ‘Rules’ within your email software.

The following rule is an example of just one of the rules I have set up to auto file and deal with email in my Inbox:

Filing of supplier invoices – This rule includes a two step process:

      1. The email and attachment is forwarded to Hubdoc (for processing and transfer to Xero); &
      2. The email is then filed in the suppliers folder.
  1. Set up a separate email account, to use specifically for subscriptions. That way you can handle all of your subscriptions in one place. These emails are usually unimportant and can be dealt with later so it is great to separate them out. It also creates a single place to deal with unsubscribing as well. Remember, when subscribing, to only use your subscriptions email address. If you already have too many subscriptions to your current email address, there is software tools that you may also use to get these under control. More on that later though…
  2. Set up only 2 – 3 email addresses for each individual within your team and make each email address specific to business outcomes. This also allows individuals to compartmentalise their tasks. E.g. In our business, we use separate emails for student support, enquiries and enrolment. Depending on the role of the staff member, these emails are then distributed accordingly.

Cool tools I love!

In addition to the above automations and rules, I have found a number of fantastic products that have helped me to tame my mail. As I use Apple Mail (it integrates with our CRM) you may have to find alternatives. To assist, I have listed their email compatibility against each app.

Here’s my go to list:

Slack or Skype (PC/Mac compatible):

Want to keep a lot of communication out of your email inbox? Using Skype, Slack or other instant messaging services is a great way to do so as it offers other options of dealing with more urgent notifications. Choosing who will use these services is important and we have had a lot of success in using these forms of communication with our team.

Electing to use a messaging service over email means our teams communication does not get mixed up and lost in email systems and helps us to communicate on a more effective level. This will help your team feel more valued and respected instead of deflated and ignored should their emails end up in your overlooked list.

You could also extend this service to your client base.

In Slack, separate ‘channels’ can be set up for employees and clients and may include: Health (a place to notify either management, or all staff, if someone is unwell – separate channels can be created to cater to each notification), Customer support, IT infrastructure updates and fixes, Internal training streams, Shared channels for learning and so on… The list is endless but a catered communication approach that utilises ‘channels’ to segment communication can be really helpful for ready reference and reminders.

Unsubscriber by Other (Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, Comcast, COX, AOL and Time Warner only at this stage): Fast and Free Email Plugin. Remove and Prevent Unwanted Email.

Sanebox (Any email client, service or device): – An email service that analyses past behaviour and files emails according to rules you have set. Easy to create folders and also allows snoozing of mail to a specified time. One of the power features (my favourite) is the ability to file SPAM and Junk Mail into a folder called ‘SaneBlackHole’. Sanebox then remembers the SPAM email address of the sender and automatically removes SPAM or Junk mail to SaneBlackHole whenever you receive an email from this address. I love this program so much I became an affiliate: SaneBox affiliate link. Check it out as it has an incredible range of features.

Mail Butler (Apple Mail & Gmail only): – A lovely app who’s tools reside in your email toolbar. From this app and your emails you can create: Notes and Tasks, Send later (write it now but deliver it later), Tracking, Message templates, Snooze, Follow up and custom email signatures.

MailTags (Gmail, iCloud, IMAP and Exchange): Organise messages by keywords, projects, importance, colour, due dates and more. Tags are available directly within the email body for ease of access and customisation is easy to set up. You may also create rules to automatically assign tags to incoming messages, use search for tags, colour, importance and due date, rename message subject line, create tickle mailboxes for today, tomorrow or soon, set up more powerful rules to manage mail more effectively.

MailHub: – A great little app that also resides in your toolbar. I use this tool to file emails quickly and easily as it remembers the folders used for past filing. You can file or delete emails individually, by thread, or sender. You also have a button to auto-filter emails from one email sender. Additional bonuses include the ability to create folders directly from the toolbar, set email reminders and a send later function. If you also accidentally hit send, MailHub has a button you can click that allows you to undo the sending of your email (within a time limit).

So that’s it, my crazy list of apps and processes that I personally use in my business to get things done! I hope you may find some of these tools, hints and tips useful.

Yours in productivity, efficiency and automation

Melissa Foote