5 tips to end email frustration

Email frustrationRemember how excited you felt when you got your first ever email? Do you still feel that way now?! Didn’t think so…

We all get so much email now that we have come to resent it. I have only a moderate amount of email compared to some people, about 100 or so messages to process every day, but still it’s easy to feel swamped by the tide of digital communication.

Social media has arguably made this feeling worse, adding several new inboxes on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and other sites.

I’ve made it my goal to live with a clear inbox. This appeals to my borderline OCD nature – my desk calculator is blu-tac’d down in just the right place – but it’s also good for the soul and for productivity. There are countless guides to dealing with email online, but here are my tips for mastering the inbox.

1. Turn off all alerts

There are few things more distracting than the incessant ping of the new mail alert, and the ‘toast’ visible reminder that slides up from the corner of your screen. The urge to click through ‘just to see’ can by very powerful, but try to resist and continue what you are doing. We are not multi-taskers (no, not even you ladies) and work far more effectively when focusing on one thing at once. Turn all these prompts off for a quieter life.

2. Process email three times per day

I don’t believe there is any such thing as an urgent email. Your situation may lead you to disagree with me. Perhaps you have a boss who expects a response within 50 microseconds of her emailing you. While I agree that responsiveness is a virtue, there are very few emails which can’t wait a couple of hours for a response.

Just because you can answer email on your iPhone doesn’t mean you have to. Ten years ago, unless you had a Blackberry, if you were out at a client meeting, you would have had to wait until you were back at your desk to respond.

Just following this rule of not answering email immediately as it comes in has made me significantly more productive. I process my email first thing, at lunchtime and at about 4pm.

3. Only process each message once

Most people use their inbox as a kind of de facto to-do list. Emails make poor task reminders because we have to go back and read them again, re-determine what actually has to be done, then we get distracted by another email coming in on top…you know how it goes.

I follow David Allen’s Getting Things Done principles fairly closely for much of my work tasks, but especially so for email:

For every email that comes in, ask yourself one question: Is it actionable? In other words, does this email require me to do something? If the answer is yes, you have three options:

  • Do – if it will take less than two minutes to do, do it right then and there. There is no point taking the time to add something to a to-do list when you could have completed it in the same time!
  • Delegate – If you’re not the best or right person to be dealing with it, pass it along to the person who is.
  • Defer – if it is a task which is too long to complete now, either add it to your to-do list or block out a specific time on your calendar to get the job done. I then move the email into a folder called Action, which gets it out of my inbox and into a place where I know where to find it

If the answer to the ‘is it actionable?’ question is no, then either hit that delete key, or store it in a reference folder where you can get at it later. How you organise your reference folders or labels is up to you. Since switching to Gmail I have far fewer folders than I used to have in Outlook simply because the search function is so good I can usually find whatever it is I’m looking for effortlessly.

4. Use rules or filters

All email programs come with the ability to apply rules or filters to process certain types of email automatically. Judicial use of these rules can save you time and mental energy. Here are some rules that I use:

  • Cc – If I am only in the Cc field of an email, rather than the To field, I assume that the message is lower priority. I have these sorted into a separate folder which I look at when I can, after I’ve dealt with the higher priority messages
  • Clients– If a client emails me this is also placed into a different folder, clearly separating it from the mass of other stuff. You could do the same for your boss or your spouse.
  • Bacn – This term isn’t original to me of course. It refers to mass email to which I have subscribed, so it isn’t unsolicited spam. This is stuff that can be read whenever and certainly isn’t urgent.

    5. Have a 5 Week folder

    This one is my secret weapon. Where do you put the email which you think you might have to refer to, but which doesn’t really need filing in a folder all its own? I use a special folder called 5 Weeks (the weird timescale came again from David Allen). I have this folder set to auto-delete message more than five weeks old. The thinking is that if I haven’t referred back to it in that time, it can’t have been that important and can be deleted.

    Yes, I have on occasion needed to look at something five weeks and a day after I have filed it in this folder, but this is very rare. perhaps it should be a 6 Weeks folder?!

    I hope these few tips are helpful to you as you manage the tidal wave of email coming in every day. Question: Do you have any tips you use to make your email life easier? Please share in the comments!

    Photo Credit: Flickr.com – Jerry Bunkers

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.shootyour.com Jason Edwards

    Thanks for the tips Pete. I still find myself, even after reading all things David Allen, frustrated by email. These tips definitely helped me regain focus.