In a year when the average business user spends more than one hour per day processing email, the question on everyone’s mind seems to be: “How can I get through my email faster?” Email has thrust us into a seemingly never-ending loop with no clear solution in sight. If I receive 100 messages per day now, it takes me X hours to process them. But the volume of email – the flow – is not a constant. It’s dynamic. Not only is it dynamic, it’s exponentially increasing for many of us. If you do the math, it may seem that if the number of messages you receive per day is increasing and you want to spend the same amount of time processing email, the simple solution is to learn how to get through your email faster. Fast is good, but it’s not the only thing that will make a difference. Eventually, no matter who you are and how fast you are at processing email, the volume of messages coming in will exceed the number that you can process during the time you have available.
The key to getting through your email faster is not only in how you process it, but what you are receiving; or, more importantly, how you choose to invest your time.
#1. Reduce your flow
If you’re receiving 100 messages per day, how many of them are spam (bulk unsolicited commercial email)? Perhaps you need to do a better job of filtering spam or using strategies that will reduce the amount of bulk email you receive each day. One effective way to reduce your flow is to really pay attention the next time you process email. Most people skim, scan, delete without looking/reading, talk on the phone while typing or reading an email, thinking that they are saving time by multi-tasking.
Do yourself a favor. Tomorrow is a new day. When you check email tomorrow, pay attention to what is arriving in your Inbox. Look at each message briefly and decide how important it is to you or whether it is important. Do you subscribe to industry-specific newsletters? If so there are probably at least one or two that you don’t have time to read each week. Trim the fat. If you don’t have time to read it, why are you still on the mailing list? Unsubscribe using the link on the newsletter or list. Or, if it’s important to you, make time to read it, but don’t just let it keep piling up in your Inbox. Decide what is necessary email and what is not and take steps to get off of the mailing lists you don’t read.
#2. Be more selective!
How you spend your time speaks volumes about who you are as a person and what things are truly important to you – that really matter most. Take control of what you do and do not need to deal with. Are you receiving email from co-workers who are cc’ing you (copying you) unnecessarily? This happens a lot if you’re a manager. Unless you specifically tell people what you do and do not need to be copied on, the others on your team may start to send you CYA mail. CYA mail is otherwise known as FYI mail (for your information), and most of the time all it really turns out to be is something that the other person thought you should know. They’re not you and they’re not mind readers, so be clear with those in your organization what you do and do not need to receive.
#3. Don’t use your Inbox as a storage area!
Think of clicking Send/Receive as being analogous to walking to the curb and reaching in your mailbox for today’s mail. Do you stand in front of your mailbox at the roadside and sort through your mail for what’s urgent and important and then stuff the rest of the mail back into the box and head back to the house? Of course not! So why do you do it with email?
Your Inbox was never meant to be a storage area for messages. This is a huge shock to some people – the same people who can’t locate a message when they need to, the same people who touch an email message three or four times before they act on it, the same people who take a week or longer to reply to an email message or who miss out on opportunities because the message was pushed to the bottom of their Inbox.
#4. Get organized!
Create a handful of folders or mailboxes that will be useful to your own unique situation and use them to get messages out of your Inbox. Perhaps you might do your professional reading on Fridays, blocking out a chunk of time in the afternoon or morning. If so, create a folder in your email program called README. As newsletters and other professional reading comes in, don’t give it more than a cursory glance other than to identify it and move it out of your Inbox to the README folder.
Perhaps you receive a lot of spam. Techniques of reducing spam are beyond the scope of this article, but one great filter to have in place on your email program is to create a filter that is a negative filter. Positive filters look for text in the subject line or headers and are triggered by it. Negative filters look for the absence of text that you specify and are triggered if the text is not there. Some email programs allow you to set negative filters like: IF To: OR Cc: DOES NOT CONTAIN email@example.com THEN MOVE message to JUNK MAIL folder. Much of the spam being sent is not addressed directly to you. If your email program does not offer negative filtering, set up a positive filter that looks for only your address in the To: or Cc: fields and sends those messages to the Inbox, while sending everything else to Junk Mail. This is a bit more difficult because then you must create a filter for each newsletter you subscribe to or subscribe under a different account.
Perhaps you have messages that arrive that require some type of action. If you can do it in less than two minutes, do it when it comes in. If not, it becomes a Task or an Appointment. Set the appropriate reminder and MOVE the message OUT of your Inbox to a folder called ACTION. Work quickly. Delete what you don’t need, reply to what you can and MOVE the rest out.
#5. Use the Golden Rule!
“If the email message that you are reading is going to take you longer than five minutes to read and reply to, it needs to be a phone call.”
Spread the word! You’ve got voicemail and a telephone! Dust them off and use them! More information can be exchanged in a two-minute phone call than in any email that takes you ten minutes to write and the other person ten minutes to read. The door swings both ways, too. Don’t send email messages that are long enough to be newsletters and expect that the recipient will read them. They won’t. They might read the first paragraph and scan the second and third, so you’re wasting your time and theirs by sending a book instead of picking up the phone. Make a list of frequently called numbers and put it in a sheet protector near your phone to save you the time of looking them up!
Adam Boettiger is a recognized expert on email management. Based in Portland, Oregon, he has been involved with email since 1992 and the web since 1995 in a variety of capacities, including advising hundreds of businesses how to effectively and responsibly reach customers online. A national and international public speaker, he has served on the board of directors for an anti-spam organization and publishes Digital Ocean, an email newsletter on time management, email overload and life management in a digital world. Mr. Boettiger can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his site at http://www.digitaloceanonline.com/.