When email first came into existence, we couldn’t wait to find an unread item in our inbox. The joy of receiving an email was equivalent to receiving a hand-written letter today. How times have changed! Now the mere thought of opening our email in the morning fills most people with dread. It is with apprehensive pride that we loudly declare how many items we have in our inbox when we return from vacation. We drown in a sea of email on a daily basis.

Emails create a false sense of accomplishment

Not unlike Pavlov’s Dog, email triggers an automatic response from people. We see that email notification pop-up, our conditioning causes us to check it immediately, and we get an endorphin rush as a reward for accomplishing this task. The danger is that we are receiving this reward for the simplest action. We are getting the same reward if we are deleting a subscription email or responding to an important question from our CEO. No wonder checking email is so habit forming.

Inbox zero

Email nirvana is an empty inbox. It may be unrealistic for many, but even a marginally smaller inbox is more cathartic that you give it credit for. If you have dealt with an email, delete it, or put it in a folder for later reference. Get it out of your inbox and off to where it needs to be. 25 unread emails are easier to process than an inbox filled with 7,000 read messages. Set up a simple filing system and use it.

Email response templates

If you find yourself sending the same type of email over and over – make a template to respond. The next time you need to reply to that hiring request, insert your template, tweak as needed, and send. You’re now sending an email in seconds instead of minutes.

Deleting your email when you return from vacation

Most of us return from vacation with a sense of dread, because and only because of email. We complain about how bad it is before we have even looked. We proudly declare how dire our inbox situation is. Or worse we never truly disconnect and instead waste our vacation checking our inbox.

Try the radical approach of deleting all new messages in your inbox. Sure, there may be some ‘important’ items in your inbox, but if you have been away for 2 weeks – those important items have already been dealt with, or they weren’t really that urgent. It may sound extreme, and for some could never be a reality, but if you can do so it will be incredibly liberating.

To accomplish this, have your auto reply read: “I am out of the office until (insert specific date) and will not be checking emails while away. Note that all emails received during this time will be deleted. If you have an emergency please contact (insert name, email address and telephone number). If this is an item you wish me to see, please resend your email after my return.”

Manage your email so it doesn’t manage you

  • Receive less by sending less: if you don’t need to send that email or reply, just don’t. Save your time and other’s inboxes.
  • Mark as unread: set your inbox to not make items as read when you click on a different email. That way you can easily see which emails you haven’t dealt with.
  • Establish a routine: if it helps, set your email to only receive emails at certain times. Alternatively, only check your email at set times during the day, and keep it closed the rest of the time to avoid those distractions.
  • Use rules to send emails to folders: most email programs allow you to establish “rules” that will sort emails into a set folder as soon as they arrive. If you get 5 updates a day from your sales department send them to that folder, especially if you only need to review them at day end. Doing this keeps everything in the right place without cluttering up your inbox.
  • Be precise and concise: keep it short and sweet. Respond only when you need to. Get to the point without making sure every word is a perfectly crafted master piece. This is an email not a Nobel prize winning thesis.
  • Make your interactions in person: work those 10 steps to Suzy’s cubical and ask her in person! That way you can ask all your follow up questions at the same time. Save Suzy’s inbox and get personal. Talking to a real person is a lovely change from the cold embrace of technology.
  • Limit the number of recipients per email: if a recipient doesn’t need to have the information in an email, leave them off. Keep the cc’ing to a bare minimum.
  • Stop reading your email on your phone: the screen is small, you can’t see the details, you start stressing out that your missing something important, and check your email on a computer anyway. If you will have access to a computer within half a day, and not expecting urgent information, just wait it out.
  • Using instant messaging instead: if you have an instant messaging system at work, use it! Those quick questions don’t need an email. Instant messages are quick and take way less time to send and respond to. If your request doesn’t need to be saved for future reference, send an instant message. I promise it’s a game changer.
  • Unsubscribe: tackle the root cause of some of the email you receive, and take a moment to unsubscribe, or modify your automatic subscriptions. This can save you valuable time in the future as you are wading through these unnecessary emails.

Follow the Email Charter rules

The Email Charter is all about ending the endless hours devoted to email. You may worry that some of the advice will make your emails too blunt or rude. They won’t. Once people understand why you are replying in a specific way, they will appreciate you saving their time. Even better, make a handy link to the Email Charter on the end of your email.

Let’s start ending emails with “No need to respond” especially when we don’t need a response. It’s the generous thing to do.

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