Pop quiz: Do you wish you received more email?
Answer: That’s a ridiculous question.
I’ve been thinking about email a lot lately, because for the past few weeks I’ve been tracking how much time I spend managing, writing, reading, forwarding, filing, responding to, and (sometimes) cursing it.
The verdict: Whatever the number is that’s bigger than “crap-ton.” (Octillion? Vigintillion? Googol?)
It turns out I spend about four precious hours a day. Yet, ironically, there are probably people reading this now who are wondering why I never responded to their last inquiry.
(Is this you? Whoopsie. Hit me again?)
So in the first month of 2015, I’m committed to something basic and pedestrian but necessary. I’m committing to doing email better—by shedding the excess weight in my corpulent, noxious beast of an inbox.
Why? Because doing so gives me more time to do the things I actually feel productive doing: writing, speaking, walking my dog.
Click for full infographic at Contatta
Most business professionals spend more than 637 hours managing emails every year—or about 13 hours per work week—according to email software company Contatta, based on statistics it culled from the US Bureau of Labor and McKinsey Global Institute. That’s a lot of hours spent shuffling a depressing amount of email around, Contatta notes, and an enormous drain on businesses—not to mention your psyche.
But we have things to do: programs to run, products to launch, content to create. Here’s what I’m trying to detox my own inbox… with advice from a few friends.
1. Batch and tackle.
Dedicate certain work hours to reading and responding to email. Or, if you’re like me and you can’t help reading it via your smart phone, at least try to group your responses. In other words, respond to a bunch of inquiries at the same time, versus answering them one by one, as they come in.
“Set up specific time blocks to check your email so you don’t get distracted every time a new message pops in,” says Alex Moore, CEO of Baydin, the company behind Boomerang, a popular Gmail plug in and email management tool. Gini Dietrich, CEO of Arment Dietrich Inc. in Chicago, suggests checking email before and after meetings to triage urgent client requests, but never during.
Approaching any task with this batch-and-conquer mentality is less taxing, research finds. But even without the research to back it up, it makes sense to not drop everything each time your email notification pings.
2. But for the love of Pete… don’t use autoresponders.
Some people regularly put auto-responders on their email, informing the sender that they respond to email only at certain times of the day. Doing so sets expectations, I suppose. But I’m not really a fan of the practice, both for practical reasons (with rare exceptions, it’s unnecessary) and for philosophical reasons (why add to the amount of email in someone else’s inbox while trying to manage your own?)
One exception: Vacation autoresponders. I’m a fan.
3. Answer email in offline mode.
If you batch and tackle your email responses, try doing so in offline mode; that way, the emails you send don’t prompt an immediate response, distracting you from your batching efforts. I chanced on this approach when answering email on an airplane without wi-fi, and I realized how much easier and less distracting it was.
“When I’m focused on a particular project, I turn my inbox to offline mode so I can still work in there, but not be interrupted by the constant flow,” Gini says.
4. Hush those bells, dings, chirps, ribbits…
Speaking of email pings… here’s a trick I recently adopted: Turn off email notifications on your computer and cell phone.
“Every time you hear that ding, it takes your brain over a minute to fully regain concentration,” says Alex Moore.
5. Write simple, direct responses.
As with any content, brevity and clarity trump long and meandering, as I said in Everybody Writes. Does a clipped answer feel rude? It’s not. It’s simple respecting your reader’s time as well as your own—and keep your responses direct and to the point.
Use as many words as you need to reply in full to the sender, but not a keystroke more. In other words, a long-winded response is indulgent.
As longtime writing teacher Don Murray once said: “The reader doesn’t turn the page because of a hunger to applaud.” Don wasn’t talking about email specifically; nonetheless, his advice applies nicely.
6. Yes, and…
Speaking of brevity with your response, avoid a protracted email volley with a recipient by being proactively specific in your response, rather than open-ended. So, say you’re agreeing to a lunch meeting—say yes, and then suggest three specific times and dates, and have the recipient pick one of them.
Yes, and… is a rule of improv. But it’s also a good rule for cooperative, efficient communication.
You can also avoid unnecessary email replies by including a No Reply Needed (NRN in Internet-speak). Assuming, of course, no response is actually needed.
7. Lose the generic subject lines.
“An email subject line is similar to a blog post title, a newspaper headline, a movie title, a tweet, the first few words in a Facebook post, the introduction to a book, and so on…. It’s the hook,” says DJ Waldow, a career coach and co-author of The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing.
DJ suggests that most people tend to treat personal email subject lines as a throwaway—writing generic lines like “Reconnecting” or “Question” or “Introduction,” when they’d be better served by making them specific, unique, and actionable.
From a productivity standpoint, ultra-specific subject lines will make it easier for you to find archived emails, DJ says. So instead of “Question,” try adding what the question is about, like: “Cavalier King Charles Spaniel rescue dog?” Or instead of “Reconnecting,” try “Coffee Tuesday?”
Fun fact: the “rescue dog” question was a real email from DJ to me. Here is the result of that exchange. (Cuuuute, right?)
8. Ditch the sub-folders.
Finding messages by scrolling or searching (via keyword) through a single inbox is faster than looking through hyper-organized folders, suggests Alex Moore.
I agree with Alex, but I should mention that this is a highly contested issue in email productivity circles: Some argue that folders and sub-folders actually bring more clarity and simplicity to an inbox by allowing you to group similar emails together. (For example, newsletter subscriptions, or marketing offers, or work-related vs. personal.)
9. Opt out of unnecessary newsletters and notifications.
For example: notifications from social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, all of which notoriously over-email when you get a response or new connection. They’re the email equivalent of chemical additives, making for bloated and less nourishing inbox. Same goes for newsletters that tend to pile up in your inbox, going unread. (You’ll never get to them, so don’t save them for later.)
10. Use an email manager.
You also have access to free and paid tools for managing your email more efficiently, including Sanebox ($6/month), Mailbox (free), and Boomerang and Mailstorm, both of which are for Gmail. They vary in performance and features.
My pal Kerry O’Shea Gorgone, an Instructional Designer with MarketingProfs, likes the simplicity and intuitive features of Sanebox. “It scans my inbox and watches where things end up,” she said. “It’s like an intuitive and smart inbox that makes my life a little easier.”
11. So… what did I miss?
Let me know below.
(Note: A version of this previously appeared in Entrepreneur magazine with the headline, Detox Your Inbox.)