I had this topic on my list of potential blog posts, then the Minimalists beat me to it, so I thought I’d better share my views on this today as my system is different from theirs. I share their goal, I just go about it another way.
Are you in Inbox Overwhelm? I think most small business people are. This is how I cope with it.
When I went to bed last night, I had one unanswered email remaining in my inbox. I use my inbox like we used to use an in-tray and everything which is in my inbox is all that remains undone. Yesterday I received 179 emails and actioned them all bar that one, by which I mean replied to those which required a reply and deleted the rest.
And, like the Minimalists, I don’t clutter up my inbox with unwanted emails so I don’t subscribe to ezines by email, I use my RSS reader instead. Google Reader is my Reader of choice and therefore whether or not I use Internet Explorer or Chrome (or any other browser for that matter), I can see all the posts I want to read on my customised home page. So they are not cluttering up my inbox.
Anything else I subscribe to if I am not reading it every day on the day it arrives, I unsubscribe. Simple as that. This is a RULE.
I don’t subscribe to anything which isn’t meaningful to me, so that includes news alerts, coupons for discounts with Groupon, I don’t tick the box saying I want to know who’s commented on my comment on other peoples’ blogs, I don’t want to know when new people are following me on Twitter and I scroll down to the bottom of almost every automated email I don’t value to see how I can stop it coming ever again. My 2nd Rule then is, if in doubt, don’t. You can always favourite the website and go back and have a look whenever you fancy, whenever you have an idle moment (as if!). If you notice you are missing something, then you have my permission to subscribe again.
My one exception is TUT. After all these years, I would definitely miss that and his daily email from The Universe, it only takes a second to read and mostly offers way more than a second’s worth of value.
My 3rd rule is you must action everything every day, which means that you must delete anything unimportant you don’t have time to deal with today and this forces you to streamline. As you notice yourself deleting X today and tomorrow and the next day, unsubscribe from it permanently to stop it coming, then you don’t have to delete or even think about it ever again.
Set up folders for your most regular correspondents, then you can deal with all their emails in one chunk of time, saving both of you energy and lots of different little emails.
Do not reply to anything which doesn’t require a reply. If people are just sending you “brain farts” every time they have a thought, delete them by way of discouraging them from doing that. If that doesn’t work, ask them to stop it. The best way to stop people writing to you is to stop replying.
Do not clutter up other peoples’ inboxes by sending emails which say “nice” or “thanks” or any kind of unnecessary reply like that. Think before you press Send. Does this really need saying or does Judith know I appreciate her already? Does Judith know I am thankful? Is Judith a busy woman who doesn’t like unnecessary one-word replies? Yes, yes and yes.
Here’s a good game. If you have loads of emails in your Inbox or you’ve filed them somewhere for future reference, delete the lot. DELETE THE LOT. Yes, freaky! But trust me, this has happened to many of us accidentally and there’s never been any ghastly repercussions from it yet. The law of email is that anything important comes back. But how often does that happen to you actually? Because my emailers know I reply instantly, they can safely assume if they haven’t heard back from me, I didn’t receive it. People behave habitually. How many old emails do you have stored? And how many more are on your old computer? Storage makes us feel “safe” but we are safe already, we are fine, we’ve always been fine, we are always going to continue to be fine, emails or no emails.
Have a way of being with your email correspondents which they come to know as your norm. My correspondents know that I reply either by return (the most usual) or later that same day if I have had to be away from my computer for any reason. If I cannot reply to something which requires my having to think about how to reply, then I send an acknowledgement so they will know I’ve received theirs and will reply after a period of Important Thinking. This applies to less than one in 1,000 I should warn you, it’s rare. Don’t do it for everyone otherwise that’s two emails for each incoming and you’ve just doubled your workload!
These days people are recommending that you only do your email once or twice a day to be more efficient, but since my email IS my work I just do it all day long. I prefer it like that. But I like to wrestle the bear and win, so I keep on top and you can only do this by being disciplined and brutal.
Do you remember when the video recorder first came in? We were so excited that we could store the programmes we didn’t have time to watch today so we could watch them later in the week or month. The sad truth eventually dawned on us. If we didn’t have time to watch them today then we would probably never have time to watch them later. Everything’s repeated anyway, now several times a week, filling up the schedules, or you can watch on demand as I do on the various iPlayers.
I notice that Virgin Media’s Tivo adverts are still selling to this need of ours to listen and watch and read everything and they address what to do if you’ve accidentally had to delete something without watching, due to shortage of room or time, which later you realise was important. Notice the futility of even hoping to keep up with that and use the facility to improve your life. Only store what you know you couldn’t possibly miss or life would be unbearable. Grey’s Anatomy, obviously. Goes without saying.
In the unlikely event that a spare, empty leisure hour ever presents itself to you, you could always opt for spontaneity and just see what’s on. I’m laughing when I write this as I know that’s never gonna happen. We’ll forget and we won’t even notice. Or we will opt to get away from the gadgets and go outside and play with our pals.
If there’s one thing the Internet has done to us by way of disservice, excluding Spam for the moment, then it’s the terrible sense of foreboding that the world is full of ever-increasing amounts of information and its our job to attempt to keep on top of all of it all the time. That way madness lies. Accept that this just isn’t possible, or even desirable, and decide to opt out of the futile struggle now. I notice that well-meaning pals will often send me links to stuff they think I might find interesting. I delete most of those too.
I do agree with the Minimalists that less is most definitely more and between their post and mine, you can create your own rules and stick to them. Resolve on the 1st of every month to re-start with your good intentions where email is concerned. Rinse and repeat as I know you may backslide a tad.
Mark Forster has another version you might like in his book Do It Tomorrow. Mark’s scheme is this. Save all your emails today, scan ’em by all means for the ones which impact on your next 24 hours, but don’t action any of the rest today. Do all of them tomorrow in one hit, first thing. Set aside a time limit to do them in. One day’s batch is one day’s work, same principle again. And if you have more than you can action in one day then you have more than one day’s work which can be done by one human being (you) and only you can decide what you are going to do about that. There’s never going to be a 25th hour in a day, that’s all I’m saying, and life’s too short to feel bad about your email inbox or to be in overwhelm because of it.
There’s only one really useful solution. Unsubscribe from everything and delete most of the rest and don’t reply at all unless it’s vital. Just pick out those emails which are really important to you in your work and personally and make everything else go away. Stop trying to be nice to everyone about everything. I’m talking to myself with that last invocation.
And here’s a fun idea too. Occasionally, just now and again, I get an email and I have no idea what to do with it. No idea what to reply. So I delete it. Again, no repercussions. Great, isn’t it?
One thing I noticed last weekend when I was accidentally unable to reply to a batch of emails is that no-one noticed. So people (myself included) like to send them but often don’t notice or care if they don’t get a reply. Take that as your freedom ticket and run with it – as far and as fast as you can!
If all else fails, Mitsy – my cat – gets on my desk and puts her head on my mouse wrist so I can’t type. Her message is clear. “You’ve been at this Inbox thang FAR TOO LONG. Come away now and pay me the attention I deserve.” Or as my best friend says “Which poor devil are you faxing now?”
Do share your inbox mastery secrets and also feedback what happens when you start to implement some of these ideas to reduce your own inbox overwhelm. More room for creativity and freedom, I’ll be bound. More time for what’s really important – your life. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain from a little experiment and if that little one works? Do more experiments, Professor!