From unsubscribing to spam mail to having a wonky signature, we have your fixes
From Twitter to texting to TV, an overwhelming amount of information floods our brains every single day. The last thing we need: an overflowing email inbox. But as the average person sends and receives 120 emails per day, the unfortunate reality is that our email count is usually in the hundreds, if not thousands. And in this age of instant communication, achieving inbox zero is merely a pipe dream—right?
Not quite. You can achieve an empty inbox by following a few simple rules, says Dmitri Leonov, vice president of growth at Sanebox, a service that analyzes, organizes, and simplifies your inbox. Here, eight surprising mistakes you’re probably making—and quick fixes that will help you read, process, and respond to your never-ending electronic messages much more efficiently.
"Checking email shouldn’t be your number one priority of the day," says Leonov. "Unless you’re a customer service representative, you probably don’t need to respond to each and every email immediately." Instead, try Leonov’s “scan, block, and ask” approach. First, scan your inbox in the morning for emails that are important and require your immediate attention. If you can respond to an email in less than two minutes, do so.
Next, block off a chunk of time to dedicate to work on your email (Leonov sets a calendar alert every morning at 11 a.m. to do so). Finally, ask yourself if answering emails is the best use of your time—more often than not, you'll realize there’s something better you could be doing with your time, he says.
When you’re in the middle of a project, turning your attention—however briefly—to check an incoming email seriously messes with your productivity. Studies show there is an “attention switching cost” (when you stop working to look at an email) of 94 seconds, Leonov says. Not only does it take about 30 seconds to process the message, but then it takes an additional minute or so to turn your attention back to the task at hand. The fix: "Turn off email notifications on your desktop and smartphone, so you're not distracted by the noise or sight of an incoming email," he suggests. "It's a lot more productive to process emails in bulk at a designated time." (Here's a guide to turning off notifications for different email clients.)
"If you unsubscribe from a spam mail, your email address may automatically be put on even more email lists because it tells the sender you’re an actual, live person," says Leonov. While not every email marketer is scummy like this, a safer idea is to use a service like Sanebox’s SaneBlackHole, which automatically places all future emails from those senders into trash, so you don't have to mark them as spam or even see them.
“Think of your email inbox as the online equivalent of a physical mailbox,” says Leonov. “Leaving emails in your inbox is like reading letters and stuffing them back in your mailbox, and it works against every productivity method out there.” Instead, find a place for every email. For example, in Gmail, you can assign a label to a message, delete it, or archive it. In Outlook, you can place messages in a specific folder, or create a general archive folder as a catchall. This way you’ll end each day with an inbox at (or close to) zero—and a great sense of satisfaction.
If your email signature includes an image, it will likely appear as an attachment. And depending on the email client, this can make things confusing when someone’s searching for an email with an actual attachment, explains Leonov. Plus, if the email becomes a thread, the image may be replicated at the bottom of every email, which is a waste of everyone's digital space. Instead, simply include basic contact info (leave out the email address—that’s self-explanatory), and maybe your Twitter handle or a link to your company or blog, he suggests.
In order to keep your email calm and uncluttered, Leonov says to remember these five actions: delete (or archive), delegate, defer, respond, or do. Delete or archive messages that aren't important. Delegate messages that someone else can handle by forwarding. Defer messages that require a response or action, but are not important or urgent, by placing them in a folder marked “Later” or “Tomorrow,” or use Sanebox’s snooze function, which archives and re-sends them to your inbox at a specified later date. Finally, do those emails that actually require real work—there's no getting around that. "But the nice thing is, if you follow the steps above, the only emails left in your inbox are the ones that you need to handle, making it a sort of to-do list for your day," Leonov says.
If you can effectively convey your response in just a few words there is absolutely no reason to add fluff, says Leonov. But even more important than making an email brief is making it clear. One helpful tip: Bold key sentences. “I really appreciate when someone sends me an email with a bolded takeaway or actionable item,” Leonov says. “This makes a longer email much less painful to read and makes it easy to focus on the key points.”
Emails are great for addressing a specific issue, and usually are more efficent than phone calls which usually involve small talk, says Leonov. But in order to keep your emails focused and on point, avoid ending with open-ended questions such as "Thoughts?" or "Let me know what you think." Instead, be as detailed and specfic as possible. Say, "Should we do X, Y, or Z?" to keep the conversation on track.