Many people use their email as a sort of to-do list, knocking off tasks reactively as they go through their messages one-by-one. And to some extent it makes sense; their inbox is constantly overflowing with email and they’re fighting to regain control.
However, this approach can be a huge productivity drain that not only distracts them from the bigger picture, but also means they’re allowing other people to dictate their work days, rather than ceasing the reigns and structuring their days strategically.
Here are three tips to help you take control of your inbox — before it takes control of you.
1. Remember that Not All Email is Created Equally
The first thing to realize is that not every email is created equally. As a business owner, an email from a client is likely much more urgent than one from another company pitching their services. It’s important to have a system in place — whether manual or automated — to prioritize emails so that urgent ones don’t get buried.
One solution is an app called Sanebox, which creates a new folder called SaneLater in your email. Over time, the app begins learning which emails you tend to prioritize over others. The app then places emails it deems as low priority into your SaneLater folder, and sends a summary at the end of the day of all emails placed there. This way, only high priority messages ever show up in your inbox, giving you the peace of mind you need to get on with real work. Low priority messages can then be processed systematically at a later time.
2. Use Apps to “Do It” or “Defer It”
David Allen, author of the popular productivity book Getting Things Done, coined the “do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it” principle. The “do it” part suggests that if a task will take under two minutes to complete, that it is best to take action on it immediately. The same principles can be applied to email.
To help your respond to emails in under two minutes, try Google’s Canned Responses feature for Gmail, which allows you to create template responses for common inquiries. And if an email contains a task that will take longer than two minutes, try an app like Clear Context, a plugin for Outlook, which allows you to instantly convert any email into an actionable task on your calendar.
3. Consolidate Your Subscriptions
When you sign up for a new software tool, conference or white paper, you’re often opting in to subscribe to emails, such as newsletters and promotions. Even if they are interesting and helpful, in most cases you should not be reading these emails right away. They can also clutter up your inbox and cause you to miss other important messages. To prevent subscriptions from getting out of hand, use an app like Unroll.me to organize them, which will consolidate all your subscriptions into a daily or weekly “rollup”. Unroll.me can also be used to mass-unsubscribe from emails you’re no longer interested in.
So don’t let your email dictate your workday. Cease control by keeping your inbox free of clutter so that you can focus on more important work.