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Taming the Enemy that is Email

Work, family, friends, peers and colleagues form a richness from which I draw inspiration. They motivate me to work hard and be as effective as I can be everyday. That doesn’t mean that life is easy to keep up with and maintain. Mine is quite busy (as are most people’s) and it’s all too easy to have things slip through the cracks. So I’ve discovered through observation, trial, and multiple errors that it’s worth it to be as organized as possible.

In this digital age of ours it’s so easy to become inundated with communications of various sorts and sources. Many people communicate through more than one channel. Some of those channels can include:

  • Phone conversations
  • Text messaging
  • Fax 
  • Social networks (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, just to name a few)
  • Email
Compounding this communication overload is the fact that most of the channels I described above are  device neutral. What this means is that communication can happen across a number of different platforms. If you have a smartphone you can make calls, send/receive emails, and log onto a variety of social networks. Many email services allow for e-faxes, enabling individuals and organizations to transmit documents digitally. So not only have the number of types of communication channels increased but they are connected to us in a variety of ways.  
While useful it may not always feel that way. A colleague of mine calls his smartphone “his electronic leash” and he’s only half-joking. It stays with him at all times and he generally responds to inquiries within minutes. I can sympathize; I’m fairly attached to my phone and laptop as well. I normally enjoy the immediacy of getting and receiving information. By being available and responsive it also enables work to move along at a quicker pace. It is through these channels and devices that I get things done.

However, it can be a pain, especially emails. Of all the different types of communication I receive emails compose the vast bulk of them. And I’m not the only one–email is ubiquitous and statistics support this. For example:

  • According to a May 2011 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project 70% of all Americans use email, a 34% increase since 2002. Email use is ranked as the second most popular online activity, only behind using search engines.
  • The Radicati Group, a market research firm focusing on the computer and telecommunications industry, estimates that 89 billion business emails will be sent and received in 2012. That figure is expected to to reach over 143 billion by 2016.
  • Mobile email use is on the rise: Portio Research states that close to 700 million people used mobile email and may grow to 2.4 billion by 2016. 
With so many people using it and the amount being generated, it only stands to reason that staying on top of emails can be a blessing as well as a time saver. I can attest to this; for the past several weeks I’ve been practicing an email management technique called “zero inbox.” The concept is similar to the one made popular by Merlin Mann, a writer who’s known for “Inbox Zero.” Essentially, it boils down to getting your emails to a manageable state so that you can focus on what’s important.

There’s a variety of ways and means in which a person can achieve this. Here are a few ways in which I’m able to accomplish this on a consistent basis.

  • Define what results you want to achieve. It’s important to be explicit in outlining what the end result should look like. What’s considered a successful zero inbox? Is it absolutely no unread messages? Perhaps you don’t want any messages at all in your inbox. For me, my daily goal is to remove all emails from my inbox. This means that all messages have been read and/or deleted and archived. I do this for two reasons. The first is because I enjoy the lack of clutter that an empty inbox represents. The second reason is that emptying it is the last thing I do at work and serves as a signal to go home. Notice I didn’t say, “It serves as a signal that work is done.” My work is never done, yet at the point I’m doing this chore I can honestly say I’ve accomplished all that I reasonably can at the office.
  • Organize your email settings. As I mentioned in the previous bullet point I archive all relevant emails. To that end I’ve created archive folders. Many of them are either for specific clients or areas of responsibility I manage. This allows me to keep emails out of my inbox, yet easily accessible should I need to retrieve them.
  • Be ruthless. Some people prefer to read and respond to them in batches. Others (like myself) address emails as they appear. Regardless, don’t let emails linger. Make a decision to either read it, respond to it, or delete it. When in doubt, delete. Along with this is that you can make conscious choices as to what type of emails you want to have. For example, many companies use email as a way to deliver information to different audiences. Perhaps it’s a newsletter, or content that may (or may not) be of value, such as a whitepaper or survey, or auto-alerts. In most cases items like these appear in your inbox because you signed up for them. Make it a point of continuously assessing if they are of value. If the answer is no then unsubscribe. Most services make it easy to do so and that becomes one less email to deal with.
  • Shift to a different channel. Let’s face it, emails are a horrible method of communicating anything but the most black-and-white information. The receiver can misinterpret the sender’s words. Interactions can stretch out for great lengths of time as those involved take their time to respond and send. Also, email threads can easily get jumbled and confusing when it involves several or more persons. I tend to find that a phone call or face to face conversation is more effective and tends to save time than attempting the same conversation via email. Whenever possible, switch your method of communication to a more effective one than email.  
  • Relax. It’s okay if you don’t always achieve your goal. Life happens. And at the end of the day you’re just managing your email, not curing a rare and deadly disease. The purpose of this is to establish good habits. Once you become organized and consistent in your execution you’ll find it easy to redirect yourself when you go off course.

Emails are an ever-growing part of people’s lives. If you can get organized in this area, you can begin to free yourself from your electronic leash. “Zero inbox” is how I do it. I strongly recommend that you find a system that works for you. When done well, it may be able to give back that one commodity that you can never recover… time.

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