How To Manage Email Flow & Organise Your Inbox Like A Pro
I once had a colleague who ignored her email.
If something was really important, she reasoned, the person would approach her face to face. Or pick up the phone.
You have to be pretty senior (boss-level senior) to afford yourself the luxury of ignoring your inbox on occasion. I don’t think it’s career advice I’d necessarily advocate, but as email encroaches on more of our time inside and outside the office, is it becoming more of a hindrance than a help?
Technology can be wonderful – it can facilitate flexible workplaces, it allows teleconferencing, working remotely, and the ability to be part of transcontinental teams. Technology gives you the ability to work for a company in Sydney, London or New York from your sun-drenched balcony in Tuscany, shooting off a few emails before your afternoon grappa… at least in theory. In reality, being available anytime, anywhere means you end up working all-the-time, everywhere. Even when you manage to finally take that long-awaited holiday to Tuscany.
I have experienced the best and worst of the virtual office. Working across several time zones has, in the past, left me with serious anxiety. The constant pressure (self-inflicted and expectation from my boss) to be available and up to speed on all developments at all times has left me shattered. And by shattered, I mean in my pyjamas on a Monday lunchtime, physically incapable of going into the office and strongly considering a gin and tonic. And I’m hardly alone in experiencing work-related burnout.
And it’s not just workers who suffer, employers also pay the price of an overflowing inbox. In 2012, research by management consulting firm McKinsey found the average employee spends more than two-and-a-half hours every day reading and responding to email. Yup, a quarter of the working day.
The average office worker spends 28 per cent of their workday on email.
So in lieu of throwing your work phone off the nearest bridge or moving to France (where workers can negotiate for the right to disconnect – really), here are some tips to help tame the inbox beast, and save your sanity:
How to deal with an inbox that is out of control
1. Set time limits to check your email
This may sound painful, but think of it like ripping off a bandaid – short term pain for long term gain. To work out how much time is reasonable to spend on email, spend a week logging the amount of time you spend wading through your inbox. Then take a step back and ask yourself if that is really the best use of your time.
For most people, checking mail at 10am, just after lunch and then again in the evening tends to work well. If you are about to walk out of the office and hit the gym do not, under any circumstances, take a peek at your inbox. Your attention will inevitably be diverted to things that can wait until after spin class. Once your designated email time is up, close the Outlook window and get on with your job.
2. Turn the automatic updates, red flashing lights and email notification ‘pings’ off on your phone
The best benefit of this is your phone battery won’t run out so quickly. But it also means you will stop listening for the noise and reaching for your phone.
3. Use the delete button and use it liberally. Also unsubscribe from all those annoying email lists
I once had more than 20,000 emails in my inbox. Yeah, really. I halved that number by unsubscribing from useless email lists. And my world still turns.
For work emails, unless you’re going to need to refer to them later, hit delete. Scan quickly when you first open and ditch anything irrelevant. File everything else away in folders so they are out of sight.
4. Create an organised inbox
Folders, categories, whatever works for you. You can even organise by deadlines or actions. There are going to be times where your system falls by the wayside, but as much as you can, make it a non-negotiable to only have zero to five items waiting for you when you click into your email at the beginning of the day.
5. Respond to emails immediately
Do not read and leave. It adds to your mental workload (https://irislillian.com/invisible-workload-comic/ ) and means you are literally double-handling everything. Make a decision and respond when you read each email, rather than leaving colleagues hanging and making you look like you are not across things. If the result of the email means more work, keep it in your inbox until it’s off your plate, or put it in your ‘actions’ folder.
6. Be more productive during work hours
Let’s get honest: sometimes the constant need to be ‘available’ means you feel you can slack off a bit on the job. If you are going to go home and spend a couple of hours clearing your inbox, checking project updates or researching, what’s the big deal in spending another five or ten minutes on the Iris Lillian Facebook Group? Or talking to colleagues in the work kitchen? And you need to research your next holiday sometime, right?
Wrong. Using working at home as an excuse for not working at work contributes to the corrosive effect of feeling like you never quite mentally switch off. Flick the switch to ‘on’ when you are in the office and do your best to flick it ‘off’ when you skip out the door.
7. Use your mailbox rules to filter out the crap
This is a neat trick. A ‘rule’ is an action that Outlook for Windows runs automatically on incoming or outgoing messages. You choose what triggers the rule as well as the actions the rule takes. For example, you can create a rule to automatically delete all messages with “Buy now!” in the subject. Life-changing and bloody genius.
To make a rule, go to the File tab on your Outlook and click Manage Rules and Alerts. Go to the Email Rules tab and click New Rule. Even if you aren’t the boss, sometimes you can make the rules.
Until we arrive in a post-email world, it looks as though email is here to stay, so why not use it to our advantage?
We’d love to know your tips for dealing with an inbox that’s sending you bonkers. Click here to join the Squad tell us all about it and compare notes.