According to research cited in Forbes, the average office worker spends 2.5 hours a day reading and responding to an average of 200 emails, of which approximately 144 (mostly CCs and BCCs) aren't relevant to their job. (source)
When you're staring at an inbox full of unread emails, it's easy to just let them slide until tomorrow. Or maybe by this point, you've given up entirely on sifting through the backlog. But letting your email mount is a good way to get stuck in the proverbial mud, especially if you struggle with disorganization on a daily basis. If you want to free up a little extra room on your computer (and in your brain), we'll give you a few tips to get started.
The Immediacy of Email
Email has become so commonplace that we've started to think of it as non-urgent. Texts and push notifications have taken center stage while email gets pushed to the sidelines. And while this is true to a certain extent, especially when it comes to spam, the underlying logic isn't doing you any favors.
When it comes to the habits of highly productive people, one thread that holds everyone together is their ability to address problems immediately and head-on. If a person responds to email within seconds, it's a sign that they're on top of things — not a sign that they have nothing else on their to-do list for the day.
Consider the Rewards
When you make an effort with your email, you can start building up your credit with everyone you correspond with. The people who send you emails will start counting on getting a prompt response, which will ultimately help them feel valued.
When you don't let things pile up behind you, you also have the ability to move forward. Part of tackling your inbox starts with changing your thoughts toward it. Your inbox is a reflection of your overall work ethic rather than a separate and unique component. Connecting your email habits to the rest of your habits can help you develop a flow that ultimately kickstarts your productivity.
Delete, Delete, Delete
As important as it is to address emails, there are also a lot of messages pouring in that don't require a response. If you're not deleting them, they can quickly clog the emails that do need to be flagged. As you go through them all, it's important to be as ruthless as possible. There are likely countless promotions and event notifications stashed on every page, but the odds of your taking advantage of even a fraction of them are likely low.
Unless you're serious about an upcoming opportunity (e.g., a training seminar or vendor discount), then you're better off deleting the email outright. If you're entirely on the fence about something, then now is a good time to label the email as pending and put it in another folder for later use.
Develop a Filing System
No matter what email system you use, there are ways to organize and track your emails. Most people know this already, but have a hard time classifying each message. Just one email can easily contain enough information to effectively fit under five different categories! It's not worth the time to file it if you need to spend hours agonizing over how you're likely to search for it two months from now.
One hack is to use broad categories for these types of emails and to edit the subject line so it's easier to find when you need it the most. For more specific emails, you can break down the categories into subsets. For example, you might keep all tax data related to a specific project in one folder and revenue projections for the same project in another.
Don't Forget Your Folders
Whether it's client communication, financial documents, or project timelines, you need to periodically clear out your folders from time to time. If you've flagged an email, make sure that it's addressed by its due date, archived once the deadline has passed, or deleted if it's no longer relevant.
We've all had moments where we've regretted deleting an email or cursed the hour it took for us to find an archived one, but being consistent about your folders can limit these frustrating experiences. It may take a while to get into the groove, but you'll eventually create a system that works for you.
Consider Limiting Your Exposure
For some people, it's not always an option to turn off their email. If new opportunities are time-sensitive, you don't necessarily have the option of only checking in the morning and then turning it off for the rest of the day. But if you do have some degree of flexibility, consider checking it in the morning and mid-afternoon and using auto-reply for all other times.
In your auto-reply message, give senders an idea of what they can expect a response back for that day. You can also include how they can reach you in the case of a true emergency. And unless you're going to be on vacation, always respond back to people as soon as you possibly can (and always within 48 hours).
Don't Skimp on Politeness
We've all been a part of email chains that are a chorus of gratitude platitudes. But as easy as it is to dismiss these emails, politeness does matter even in today's tech-driven email. It's ultimately more important to be timely and efficient when it comes to email responses, but a few additional kind words never hurt anyone.
Your relationships with colleagues, clients, and prospective customers come down to the everyday details of how you treat them. You don't have to thank everyone who emails you, but you also shouldn't just archive everything that doesn't technically require a more detailed response either.
Consider Delegating to a Virtual Assistant
Many professionals who need a personal assistant don't consider getting one due to both the expense and the hassle of trying to get someone up to speed. How can an assistant jump into an organization without first being trained on the specifics of the projects in the works or the long-term goals you're trying to accomplish?
It's why virtual assistants have proven to be an effective solution to these problems. With a virtual assistant, you choose the number of hours the assistant works, as opposed to hiring someone on a part-time. A virtual assistant working an hour a week on spam email could prove to be just the jumping-off point to clear out the rest of your inbox.
A virtual assistant takes the time to unsubscribe from all those promotional emails that you no longer have any use for. They categorize and label your most important emails, so you can find them in a pinch later on. They can even alert you of an imminent deadline that would be dangerous to ignore.
The relentlessness of your inbox may not be the most difficult task you encounter on a daily basis, but the continuous slog can easily leave you feeling discouraged. Instead of clearing out 10 emails just to find that 20 have taken their place, you can work on culling the unimportant emails so you don't lose sight of the unique opportunities sandwiched between all that spam.
For more great tips and in-depth recommendations on how busy people can better manage their email inbox, read here.