Taming the Email Monster
I’ll bet you either groaned, chuckled, or both when you saw the title of this article.
Whatever your job or role in life may be, you’ve almost certainly got an email monster. It may be large or small, it may be overwhelming or just annoying, but we’ve all got email monsters of our very own.
And it’s getting worse. As the layoffs keep happening, those who are left end up with that much more to do, and thus that much more email. If you’re job-hunting, you’re probably sorting professional from personal emails, making sure you don’t miss a good job lead in between Cousin Ermintrude’s forwarded jokes.
Relax. You’re in good company. Even those who are masters of their in-box get overwhelmed sometimes – and “masters of their inbox” are few and far between.
Start by recognizing that what works for one person may or may not work for you. If some expert’s recommendation doesn’t seem to help, you’re not doing anything wrong, and you’re not a hopeless case. It just doesn’t work for you. Don’t try to force it. Instead, let go and try something else. The only thing that matters is how you feel about it, not what someone else says.
The first step is simple: admit that what you’re doing now isn’t working. (Unless it is – in which case, congratulations! and please share your system in the comments!)
The second step is accepting that your email in-box is not a to-do list. That way madness lies. The temptation is huge, and it inevitably leads to lost action items, lost emails, and an enormous in-box.
Make a commitment to yourself that you won’t use your email in-box as a to-do list from this point forward. Then try these suggestions and see if they help.
You can’t tame the monster till you clean its cage! All that piled-up email has got to go.
Whether you feel more like starting at the bottom (just how old is the oldest email in your in-box?), at the top (those are the ones that most need attention), or somewhere in the middle, pick a place and start shovelling.
Don’t try to get through it all in one sitting. Instead, nibble away at it. In the five minutes before your next meeting, you can sort out at least a dozen emails. You’ll be amazed at how much you can get done in small increments – and it’s a lot less painful that way.
Where to shovel it all to? That’s what’s next.
Whether you’re doing the initial cleanout or a daily review, you need a way to sort it that gives you confidence that you won’t miss anything.
Don’t delete anything you think you might need. Chances are you won’t need it – yet if you’re worried about needing it, you’ll tend to leave it where it is. And the whole point is to get it out of your in-box.
Don’t create fancy systems; you won’t remember the logic. Simply file it where you’d look for it first. If it’s important because of who it’s from, create a folder for that person. If it’s the project or topic, likewise. If it’s something you want to read but don’t have time now, create a “reading list” folder.
You get the point.
Yes, this is your to-do list issue.
Anything that requires action has a due date. (No due date? Then do you really need to take action on it? If so, assign a due date!)
Create a series of email folders for each day of the week – Monday through Friday – plus one more called “next month.”
Sort your follow-up items into one of these folders based on when you next need to look at it. For instance, if you replied to someone’s email and requested they get back to you by the end of the week, then their original email (the one you replied to) goes into the Friday folder.
If it’s something to review next week, put it in Monday’s folder. If it’s something to review next month, put it in the “next month” folder. (You’ll go through that folder on the first of the month.)
Try not to hang out in your email all day long.
Many jobs require you to be responsive to email, so actually shutting your email down and only looking at it two or three times a day may or may not be something you can do.
Bear in mind, though, that there are plenty of times, such as when you’re in meetings or otherwise not in your office, when you’re not available to answer email. So try scheduling meetings with yourself where you shut off email and turn off your phone. You’ll be amazed at how productive you can be.
Schedule time in your calendar each day to review your daily follow-up items folders. Schedule additional time on the first business day of the month to review the monthly folder. It doesn’t need to be long – half an hour is enough – but it does need to be there.
Staying on top of your personal email monster can be done. Just like any new habit, it will feel strange and even awkward at first. Whatever system you adopt, give it a chance to work for you. If it doesn’t, tweak it. Take what you’ve learned about what does work and synthesize it into a system that’s uniquely yours!
“I have no life, just email.” Michael Jantze, 1962- , American comic strip writer, from The Norm (daily comic strip)