How to Better Manage Email

These are some tips for better processing of email.  Most of these ideas and concepts are taken from a email strategy and presentation called "inbox zero", by Merlin Mann .  If you would like to view the full presentation about inbox zero there is a link at the bottom of the page. 

  When you check email always processes it to zero.  This means you inbox should be empty when you are done checking your mail. 
Checking email is where most people start to get overwhelmed.  The key is to process your email, rather than just checking it.  When you are done with email it should all be processed leaving no messages in your inbox. 

The key to achieving  inbox zero is to process each email to an action the very first time you read it.  The idea is look at it, decide on an action.    Below are several possible actions in order of desirability.  Each persons action list can be different depending on their job.  Once you define your set of actions, dealing with email becomes a lot easier.   A lot of this will sound like common sense and it is, but limiting yourself to several action will save a bunch of time. 

Delete-  First look down your list of subjects and check the items that do not apply to you and you never need to look at again.  You may need to read a few emails to determine if they fall into this category, but most of you should make a decisionfrom the subject and the message preview.   The more you do this the more comfortable you will become.  I would guess half of my email falls into this category and can be identified in the first 2 mins of processing email. 

Archive- After you have deleted emails that are meaningless to you, then next step is to look down the list and check the ones that you would like to keep for reference, but don't require any action or response on your part.  This is true about 90% of email that comes from our lists.  These are announcements and schedules that you may want to refer to but don't require you to do anything.  Some people can get caught in the trap of printing these emails.  The only thing worse than keeping email in your inbox is printing it.  Under no circumstances should you ever print an email for your own personal use.  Simply Archive it so you can refer it it at any time by searching for it. 

Delegate- This one doesn't apply to all of us, but if an message is better handled by someone else or if you have an assistant that can handle the email, Forward it to them. 

Respond-Try to quickly respond to the emails that can be resolved fully by a quick response.  Keep this to 2-3 sentences.  After you respond, immediately archive the message

At this stage, you can be 10-15 min into processing mail and you should have dealt with 90% your email. 

Defer- This is a tricky one and where most people get into trouble.  If you have a message that you need to respond to but  you can't respond right away because you need more info , you need to do some research, or email someone else for help.  I like to create a label called "Respond To" for these messages rather than letting them sit in my inbox.  Then you can quickly go back to this label once you are ready and able to respond.  Once you have labeled it properly, archive it.

Do-  This is the most important step in the process, but only applies to a small fraction of the email you receive.  The remaining email in your inbox requires you to do something.  If it is a simple task, like dropping off a paper at the front office just go ahead and do it and archive the message.   If it is an email about a meeting,  put it in your calendar. If it is something that you can't or won't do now, put it on a "ToDo" list.  The most important idea in "inbox zero" is not to use your inbox as a "To Do" list.  Decide what you need to do and archive or defer the message. 

All of this is a lot easier said than done.  It really helps to just think of your list of actions for each email.  Keep your action list as short as possible.  Each persons list of actions may be slightly different. 

Do email less.  Don't let email become an interruption in your work day.  Figure out how many times a day you need to process email and stick to it.  Use filters to have emails automatically skip the inbox for listserves and info you don't need to read right away. 

If you are really serious about managing email in a new way this is a link to the full presentation about "inbox zero".   The presentation is an hour long, but meat is in the first 25min, the rest is Q&A. 
Inbox Zero Video