Inbox Zero–Have you heard of it? If you read 43folders or Lifehacker, you probably have. Inbox Zero is Merlin Mann‘s philosophy on handling email, and in short, it means that you keep your email inbox at 0 messages by managing the inflow, behind-the-scenes filtering, and dash responding. It is a New Year’s Revoluation of mine, which I added to the list between January 1st and the end of March.
I did okay for a while, but as a teacher, I get so many emails! Students, fellow instructors, the department, the Language Centre tutors, my bosses. I know I’m not the only one who gets lots of emails: Emails barrage us all all the time. And Zero Inbox offers a method of staying sane beneath it all.
I am having moderate success with it. I am using Gmail’s powerful filters to filter distractions (Facebook, MySpace, and any other social networking site). They pass the inbox and get labeled “social media”. I do not see them unless I check that label. One problem solved. I also use the filters to automatically label most of the emails that come into my inbox. That way, I can archive most emails knowing that I will easily be able to find them again if I need them.
Where I have problems with Inbox Zero is responding. I use lables to tell me what needs my attention: reply-to, needs-action, and waiting-for-response. Now, if I can just carve out some time each day for dash responses.
I have carved out one hour at least for my PhD, but my email responding wouldn’t make Mr. Mann happy. I respond to emails right away if it will take me less than 2 minutes. Longer responses have to wait. Sometimes I’ll get to them within 24 hours, but I think most of the time, it takes me somewhere between 5 days and a month to respond, depending on the urgency. Yikes.
I do have some basic elements of email management under control, and I’d like to share those with you today. The first five steps are what helped me to move from treading water to feeling like I was at least walking in shallow water–I haven’t totally moved onto dry land as far as email management is concerned, but I am safe enough that I can throw you a rope out there.
5 Steps for Quick Email Management
- Use filters and labels. If you have a large inflow of messages every day, filters will make it easier to deal with. Use filters as I describe above, to eliminate distracting emails before they distract you.
- Unsubscribe without abandon. Unsubscribe from all of the newsletters you’re just deleting anyway. Why let them waste your time? If you really can’t live without certain newsletters, coupon lists, and sale adverts, use filters to have those emails get labeled and skip the inbox. Then you can check them once a week to see what’s good and not be bothered by them when you are trying to work.
- Use the “2 minutes or less” rule. Get the easy-to-answer emails out of the way by responding right away.
- Use templates. Don’t write the same message over and over again. Gmail just introduced “Canned Responses” (which should be called “Email Templates”) as a new Labs feature, so you’re in luck if you’re a Gmail user. But if not, create a folder on your flash drive for everywhere-access called “Email Templates” and create text files of emails that you write frequently. Then, it’s just copy-and-paste, and you’ve saved 2 minutes.
- Make time every day. Okay, so this isn’t really a “quick step,” and I’m working on this one too. But like Mom always said, “How do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time.” Email definitely is an elephant.
Question of the Day
It’s your chance to weigh in on a question I am undecided on: Should we receive email only once a day (by only checking it once a day) or is it okay to check it several times a day?