Master Your E-Mail (So It Doesn't Master You)
4. Delete first, read the surviving messages later.
Most of the e-mail you get is probably garbage. Not spam, necessarily, but useless to you and unworthy of your attention even for a moment. This is doubly likely to be true if you've let online retailers add you to their mailing lists while making a quick purchase, thereby ensuring an unending flow of daily marketing messages that you've signed up for but don't want.
Instead of scrolling through your inbox at the start of the day, looking for important messages in deep drifts of junk, give yourself a little psychological relief by deleting the obviously worthless items first. It's astonishing how you can start the day with 80 messages in your inbox, and winnow it down to 15 within 5 minutes or so. Disposing of the clutter feels good, and it requires very little effort.
And once all the rubbish is out of the way, you can start working confidently through the messages that matter.
When you're out and about, you can trim down the size of your inbox by using your phone's mail client to scout and delete unwanted messages. While mobile interfaces aren't really ideal for composing messages, they're great for scrolling quickly through your message list and weeding out the undesirables.
5. Take action immediately.
When you open an e-mail message, do something with it right away. If it's junk or if it just isn't worth keeping around for some other reason, delete it without further ado. If it's worth keeping but requires no further action, file it in a trusted folder or archive it so you can search for it later if you ever need to.
Use the 2-minute rule: If a message requires action from you that you can complete in less than 2 minutes (such as typing a reply and hitting Send), do it at once. Then file, archive, or delete the message and move on.
If the message requires action from someone else, delegate it by hitting Forward and sending it to the person who needs to act on it. If you need to track the item to ensure that it gets done, file it into a folder labeled 'Waiting For' so you can follow up on it later if you need to. (It's a good idea to check the contents of your 'Waiting For' folder at the end of each day.)
Some messages require action on a specific date or at a particular time. For handling those messages, I use a new service called Nudgemail, which lets me defer a message by forwarding it to an address such as firstname.lastname@example.org. Nudgemail sends the message back to me on the date or time specified in the address, so I can deal with it then. It's a great way to keep an inbox at zero without losing track of time-sensitive messages.
12/3 UPDATE: As of today, Nudgemail has added a recurring-reminder feature that lets you send yourself reminders on an automatically repeating schedule, such as email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. This can come in really handy when your boss hands you a new responsibility that you need to build into your routine.
If a nonurgent message requires action from you or some sort of follow-up that you can't complete in 2 minutes, defer it until you have the time. In such a case, you need to capture the task in another system such as a calendar, a to-do list, a trusted folder in your sidebar, or a wire inbox on your desk. Wherever you put it, make sure it's a place that you are sure to come back to. After you've committed to taking action and captured your commitment in a trusted place, get the message out of your inbox and move on.
6. Slow your roll.
Don't let mail become a constant distraction during your workday. When you need to concentrate on a project, the constant inflow of new messages can easily lure you away from the task at hand. But e-mail is not instant messaging, and there's generally very little expectation that you'll respond immediately to any given message.
To give yourself uninterrupted blocks of time, set your mail client to refresh every 30 minutes or so, not every 1 to 5 minutes. If you use a Web-based client, such as Gmail, keep the e-mail tab in your browser closed except when you think it's time to check it.
7. Use canned responses.
Most of us receive lots of e-mail messages about a few recurring topics. In dealing with many of them, you can save time by using boilerplate responses that contain such details as directions to your office, statements of policy, and information about important products.
If you use Gmail, check out the Canned Responses plug-in from Google Labs. This handy tool adds a dropdown menu to your e-mail interface, from which you can choose a number of text entries to toss into a message.
In Outlook, the Signature feature works in much the same way as Gmail's Canned Responses. Create a separate signature for each boilerplate message, and then select it from the Signatures option when you need it.
With a few essential responses at the ready to drop into a reply, you can type a friendly salutation, insert your boilerplate, and hit Send.
These are just a handful of the many tactics that can make up a good e-mail management strategy. If you practice them diligently, you'll be better positioned to pop open your inbox, tackle its contents, and get back to work. And when you sign off at the end of the day, you'll have the comfort of knowing that you've dealt promptly and effectively with every message that came your way.
Got some good e-mail strategies of your own to share? Let us know about them in the comments area.