To recapitulate from Part One: Email DOES NOT control you. The power is YOURS to take control. Email SHOULD NOT be painful. I'm here to help.
So let's assume that you're on board and ready to take back your inbox and communicate with confidence and ease. Let's also assume that you currently feel inundated with the volume of email that either exists in your inbox currently or that comes to you each day. In this article, I'm going to walk you through some more principles around Inbox Mastery—including why it's important to achieve Inbox Mastery and how mastery can serve as a gateway to control in other areas of your life—as well as give you a video to watch and some websites to visit, and then help you turn your current situation into something that sets you up for success.
For simplicity's sake, I am assuming that you are using GMail or a Google Apps for Business account. Say what you will about Google, their email service is the cleanest, most solid account out there, and their recent redesign strips it down to an even more minimalist aesthetic.
If you don't have a Google account, that's okay. I recommend one, but these techniques are not unique to Google's webmail service, so it would just take a little creative re-appropriation if you're on Yahoo!, Hotmail, or your own hosted email server.
Email SHOULD be as Short as Possible
I'm going to refer to this more than once, so I recommend spending an hour of your time watching a talk by Merlin Mann about Inbox Zero. I nabbed a couple of his key points and have worked them into my Inbox Mastery plan, so you'll see them pop up here and there, and he does a great job of framing his talk with fact and wit.
Two years ago, as I Heart Art: Portland was kicking off and our leadership council was in constant communication with each other, there were a lot of emails back and forth between the eight of us because we could only meet so often as a group. I quickly realized how time-consuming it can be to compose lengthy emails. It's like writing a blog post or a short essay! I would dive into my compose screen and look up when I was finished to realize that 30 minutes had flown by, when I had figured it would only take ten.
In my day job, my department's office is physically removed from the rest of the college's administration, so we rely on email to communicate more heavily than meetings, casual office drop-bys, or mailroom chats. It may be built out of necessity, but the quality of communication isn't as high as face-to-face discussion.
Emailing is writing. And writing is time-consuming. So naturally, it makes sense to strip the writing component down to its bare minimum. Merlin Mann talks about keeping email replies down to 1–2 sentences. There is another site that encourages you to set a five-, four-, three- or two-sentence reply policy. I don't necessarily believe that we all need to restrict ourselves in this way, but it's important to be conscious of our email length.
A few key questions to ask yourself as you reply to emails: Is this response as short and to the point as it can possibly be? Would bullet points or a numbered list be more effective at communicating my key points? Is this a discussion better had over the phone or in a meeting?
To the last question, I think it's important to factor in the amount of time that all parties will spend responding to an email thread. If it adds up to more than an hour, then chances are it would be more productive for you to come together for a focused 30-minute meeting. Do keep in mind, however, that meetings are only worthwhile if they're more productive than the constituents working individually.
Inbox Mastery is a Gateway Drug
Achieving mastery is important, because once you establish mastery of one task, it makes mastery of other tasks/skills easier to attain. Mastery helps you build self-control. But mastery is also a process. I don't want you to think for one second that you can spend a day attacking your inbox and then you'll be set for the rest of your life.
Old habits die hard, especially when those habits have developed into a compulsion. It takes time to learn a new schedule, engrain the five email actions below into your brain, and put all of these concepts into practice. I will not pretend for one second that I have achieved Inbox Mastery at this point, but I'm definitely a lot closer to it than I was three months ago. More importantly, I'm confident that my goal is attainable and that these steps will help get me there. They are a light at the end of the email tunnel.
Email IS Action-Oriented
We're not in the actual management phase yet, but it's crucial to start thinking of this next bit as soon as possible and let your brain wrap around each component. All emails fall into one of five actions (courtesy Merlin Mann), and you might just want to stop right now and write them in marker on a sticky note and attach it to the bottom of your screen. These should be evaluated and implemented roughly in order.
- Delete – This includes and is synonymous with Archiving. If it doesn't require further action or is just a notification, get rid of it. This is the most important action because you will keep coming back to it after processing with each of the other four. Ask yourself with each message: What needs to happen to this in order to Delete it? Can I trash it completely, or should I Archive it?
- Delegate – Pass the buck on to someone else. It could be to a co-worker, a direct-report, your boss, or it could just be an FYI that you're passing along to a friend. Once it's delegated, Delete.
- Respond – Some emails just need a response. Keep your time constraints in mind, keep it short, and even if it's an ongoing conversation, Delete. The great thing about email is that when there's a new reply, it will magically reappear in your inbox. Until then, there's not reason to keep it there, since you've already done your part. Your brain will thank you for getting it out of sight once you've dealt with it. It's also good to know that not everything needs a response. Acknowledgement of receipt of message is archaic, especially since the chances of NOT receiving an email these days are really slim. Responding with "Thanks!" or "You're Welcome!" is a waste of time. If you need to thank someone or let them know you received their email, include a heartfelt line about why you appreciate and value them.
- Defer – You're processing your email, and sometimes there's one that requires major action or you need more information in order to process it. "Can you update the website with the latest information from the press release?" I don't have time right now, so I'm going to write it down on my to-do list and archive the email. When it's done and I need to respond to the sender, I can either start a fresh email thread or search for the old one and reply to it. Done. Reminder, Merlin says your to-do list should NOT be your inbox. Once you've noted the task, Delete the email.
- Do – What's that old Nike slogan? Just do it. If you need to act on an email in order to reply to it and delete it, and you have enough time to accomplish that task, then act on it. "Can you check in on the analytics for today?" Yes I can, here are the numbers. "Are you accepting wholesale orders at this time?" Yes I am, and here's my line sheet. Once you do it, Delete.
I really wish there was a D-word that was synonymous with Respond in this context, but that's just my left brain seeking a system.
Inbox Mastery: The Craze Before the Storm
Inbox Mastery requires preparation. Take some time to evaluate your current email process (or chaos, as the case may be), and set benchmarks that will help you to set your parameters going forward. Spend one week monitoring how many emails you receive per day and what day or days are your busiest. This includes everything from newsletters to retail sale announcements to work messages to cat videos from your mom.
Identify those times when you feel the most apprehension or stress about your email and write them down. Those are critical points to address. How can you reduce your inbox-induced stress and bring your whole mind to the email table? If you have multiple accounts, start with the account that receives the highest volume of messages. Once you are on your way to mastery there, the rest will fall into place easily.
Once you've evaluated your email behavior, spend some dedicated time on your lowest-volume day cleaning out your existing inbox. Archive anything over one month old to start with. It's not worth fretting over if you haven't acted on it yet, and if it's truly important, it will come back to the surface. Take a slash-and-burn mentality to clearing things out and use Merlin's five-action process for dealing with the rest. If you come across a subsciption, ask yourself if you can live without it—if the answer is yes, then unsubscribe right then and there.
Get that inbox down to ZERO. When you've hit that lovely nothingness, tweet about it, pour yourself a drink, or buy yourself a tasty treat. You did it! Now it's time to attain mastery.
What are your biggest email hurdles? What stresses you out the most? What have you learned about your email behavior in cleaning out your inbox?
Next time, we'll walk through six steps to help you manage your email behavior and achieve inbox mastery! Keep reading with Part Three.