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7 Tips to Help You Get Better Control Over Your Email

There’s no getting around it: Email is essential to modern communication, but it can also be a time-sink, especially for busy business owners. You can’t shut it down completely, of course, but the good news is there are plenty of ways for you to get a better handle on it, manage it effectively and get your inbox to work for you.

And doing so will yield big benefits to your efficiency, focus and productivity. “When it gets out of hand, that creates a lot of stress, and stress is probably the biggest productivity killer. Everything feels urgent and overwhelming and gets us stuck,” says Penny Zenker, a productivity expert and business coach.

Here are a few of her favorite tips for getting better control of your email.

Set Boundaries

When it comes to managing your inbox, Zenker says one of the most important tools you’ll need is self-discipline. “The first step is to understand where your behavior is keeping you from success,” she says. In many cases that means setting boundaries. “Best practices show that the ‘Pavlov’ response is not effective,” she says of looking at your inbox every time you get a notification. “It might make you feel good, like you’re doing something, but you need rules.”

This may include setting boundaries for yourself or agreeing to them as an organization, she says. Common useful boundaries include checking your email three times a day or in blocks so you can dedicate all your attention to responding and prioritizing requests, rather than letting it distract you from the tasks you should be doing. Zenker also recommends not checking your email first thing in the morning, as it may make you put other people’s priorities above your own.

Touch It Once

Once you’ve set some boundaries around your email time, focus on the emails themselves. Zenker recommends the “touch it once” rule for new emails. When you get an email, read it and decide whether you should delete it, reply to it, defer it, assign it or its contents to someone else, or archive it. This one-touch approach keeps emails from clogging up your inbox.

Use Fields Wisely

After lots of responses, subject lines may not reflect the contents of the current email conversation, Zenker says. “You might start a string and then two weeks later it still has the same subject line, but it’s gone on to a different topic, which makes it hard to find it again.”  She recommends always changing a subject line to reflect what’s included in emails, such as any action that’s required.

She also recommends setting a standard that people included in the “to” field are the ones who are at a higher priority to respond, while those copied are on the email just to get the information. This informal rule helps cut back on unnecessary responses and clutter.

Consider Setting Up Folders

If you let your emails sit in your inbox until you get to them, a folder system might be helpful. Most email programs let you set up triggers or keywords that send newsletters or other routine emails to certain folders to save them until you have a chance to look at them. Zenker says you can also do this manually and create an email folder for every day, then file emails into those folders to take care of on those days. And don’t be afraid to unsubscribe using a tool like Unroll.me if some routine emails are more stress than they’re worth.

Make Shortcuts

If you send a lot of emails with similar text in them, such as for sales or customer service, Zenker recommends using a tool like TextExpander. This tool lets you type a keyword or keywords to automatically generate a whole paragraph, boosting efficiency and productivity.

Schedule Reminders

If you use your email as a to-do list — and many people do — Zenker recommends using tools that resend emails to you on the day you need to address them. Boomerang and FollowUp.cc can archive emails and then resend them to you if they haven’t been responded to and need further action.

Gamify Your Inbox

If you use Gmail, there’s a tool called The Email Game that can make managing your inbox a little more fun. “If you’re going to check your email every day at 11 o’clock, it times you on how quickly you work through it,” she says. It can help you commit to the “touch it once” rule, she says, and adding a timer can create some motivation to move through it quickly.

Stephen Loy