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Organize Your Digital Life 1 – Get Control of Your Email

This is the first in a series of posts in the Organize Your Digital Life series.

Email is becoming an overwhelming problem for a lot of people.  Many clients I visit have thousands of emails in their inbox, and getting a grip on it seems completely hopeless.  There are two things that you can do to help tame your inbox: Change your methods and change your tools.

:: Change your methods

We’ll start with how to change your methods.  Many of you may be tied into specific tools (email at work, for example), but anyone can tweak their methods.

The biggest thing you can do is treat your inbox the way it was intended — for INcoming messages.  Don’t store them there.  Let them come in, deal with them, and move on.  So how do you do that?

Stop “checking” your email – “process” it instead.  When you read an email, do something with it immediately.  A popular list of what can be done to any message is:

  • Delete/Archive: So many messages can just be trashed.  Be liberal with the delete button.
  • Do: If the email can be dealt with quickly, do it.  I get an email every morning with a report from another site I manage. I open it up, grab the data I need, toss it in the spreadsheet, then get rid of the message.  Takes about 30 seconds.  Another example is when clients send me FTP info for a site I’ll be working on in a few weeks.  I grab the info, store it in that client’s file and then move on.
  • Delegate: If a message needs to be processed by someone else, get it off your plate and onto theirs.
  • Respond: If someone sends me an email that is missing a key piece of information, I reply with a request for the info and move on. By the same note, many emails just need a simple response — “where do you want to have dinner?”, “how do I access Analytics?”, etc.  Answer the question, get rid of the email, and move on.
  • Defer: This is a tricky one for a lot of folks.  If you get an email that you need to deal with, but you don’t have time for it right now, what do you do?  If you’re like most folks, you leave it in your inbox.  Since our goal is to keep the inbox clean, you need to get it out of there.  If it’s a file you’ll need later, save it (see my “Organize Your Files” post).  If it’s a big task you need to do, then add it to your do-do list (see my “Organize your tasks” post).

Please note that when I say to remove it from your inbox, I don’t necessarily mean to delete it.  Gmail has a killer “archive” feature, and Outlook allows you to create folders to store them in (but don’t use too many).  Use those features to keep your inbox clean, but with a copy of the email safely tucked away in case you ever need it again.

Merlin Mann covers “Inbox Zero” in this excellent video from a few years back.  It’s quite long (nearly an hour), but rather entertaining and very informative.  If you haven’t watched it before, I highly recommend it:

:: Change your tools

If you are stuck in Outlook in a work environment, I feel for you.  🙂  Some of these tips can still be applied, though. If you have the ability to change things up, though, here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Combine your accounts into a single system. This doesn’t need to be a single address, but it needs to be a single program from which to access it.  Most systems support this (Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail, etc), so figure out how it’s done and make it happen.
  • Switch to web-based mail, probably Gmail. Here’s why:
    • You’re not tied to a particular computer. All of your email is available on any computer.
    • It’s all backed up. If your computer crashes, you lose zero email.
    • It’s all synced. I talk to people that check their email through the web (or on their phone), but then it still pulls it into Outlook when they get home.  This means they have to deal with every message twice.  Do you really want to double your email workload?
    • Your computer will probably run faster. Outlook is a huge resource hog, and being able to simply open one extra website in a lightweight browser (like Firefox or Chrome) will be far easier on your system.
  • Make sure you can access it from your phone. Being able to deal with email on the road is huge.  I can’t do everything from my phone, but I can delete, delegate and respond pretty easily.  If I get 25 emails while I’m out, it’s nice to come home and only have four sitting in my inbox.
    • You can’t afford an email capable phone? You can’t afford not to.  Let’s assume that having email access on your phone would save you 30 minutes/day.  Figure out what your time is worth per hour, then multiply by 180 (hours saved per year).  If you’re worth $20/hour, then a phone with email will save $3600 worth of your time each year.  And $99 is too much to spend?

If you switch to Gmail (or if you use it already), be sure to spend some time looking at the options they have in the “Labs” section.  I personally think “Send & Archive” is the best thing ever created, but there are plenty of others that may help as well.

Matt Cutts (a well-known Google employee) created a few videos that are worth watching if you use Gmail: Gmail Power Tips and his favorite items in Gmail Labs.

What other email tips do you have?

This is the first in a series of posts in the Organize Your Digital Life series.

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Mickey Mellen

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  1. Not everybody is perfect with the zero inbox appproach.

    I created a folder Z, aka the last one in the folder hierarchy, where I archive all my old mails. Once a year or when a project (folder) is closed I move old mails or the complete project folder into the Z archive basement.

    One folder instead of many.
    Clean folder hierarchy.
    Folder hierarchy remains but is moved to the basement.
    Search and folder compression is much faster for actual projects.

    And a big YES, piping all mails through Google mail is a big plus.

  2. Delegate, its what one should do if it takes you more than 10 minutes to do your email. Get some rules down and get a trustworthy online worker to take care of it for you. It has made my life so easier.


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