If there is one thing I am genuinely afraid of it is my email inbox. Every time I am getting too busy to keep my inbox in check, my Unread Emails counter immediately grows three digits big. And I am not even important! How can we deal with the flood of emails from advisors, colleagues, professors, students, administrators, listservs, and RSS feeds? Here are three steps for taking control over your inbox.
Put your email inbox on a diet
One of the most obvious solutions is to reduce the amount of emails that are coming in. Do you really need to see all these updates from facebook and amazon? When was the last time you clicked on a link from that particular listserv? Is that email subscription to blog X really helping you in your daily life? (Tip: for the academiPad blog, the answer obviously is “yes”.)
I would like to challenge you for a week-long email inbox diet: Over the next seven days, unsubscribe to every message service that you don’t read, don’t find important, or you could have lived without. We often don’t do this because we are lazy. However, if you commit yourself to this inbox diet for one week, you will soon see the difference.
And what better way of committing yourself to something than telling everybody about it? Retweet this if you are with me!
I am putting my email inbox on a diet: Over the next 7 days, I will unsubscribe from every email service I don’t read. joachim-scholz.com/academipad/201…
— Joachim Scholz (@academiPad) June 17, 2012
Often, it is not even so difficult. One great example is facebook: You can bash it as much as you want, but at least unsubscribing from its status and discussion updates is damn easy through a link at the bottom of each email that goes out.
Other message services require more work to unsubscribe from. Challenge accepted! Make it your personal quest to never get any email from that list again.
Manage your emails as if you were doing sports
While the first step is all about reducing the amount of emails you have to process, the second step is all about processing those emails that make it through more efficiently. Bryan has written an excellent post about the Inbox Zero principle that I highly recommend checking out.
In short, the idea is to check your email inbox less often, but once you are in the box, you take action vigorously! Such actions include deleting emails, delegating tasks, writing responses, defer longer replys, and doing the actions related to an email.
How is this like doing sports? Because you do it for a short time, you fully focus on the game, and you expect to get sweaty. Once you have left the gym (aka: email inbox), your mind is clear to do other stuff.
Organize, organize, and organize your emails
So, now that you have less emails to process (step 1) and you process your emails like a Judo fighter (step 2), what can you do to organize your emails? And is there a tool that can help you?
One thing to keep in mind about the inbox zero principle is that it’s a methodology to increase productivity. However, it doesn’t say much about how you can manage all the information that comes in with the email flood. For example, some emails don’t need to be followed up by an action immediately, but you might want to check back on it later, when you are working on that new research project or you are hunting for your first job. For finding that email 28 days later, you need to have a good information management workflow in place.
The standard Mac Mail app already comes with a couple of features that help you to organize your emails. You can use smart folders to collect emails from certain people you work with, to show you all unread emails, and to display emails that contain certain terms. While smart folders leave your emails in the inbox, you can use rules to automatically move emails into special folders. Last, you can use differently colored flags to highlight important emails.
However, if you are serious about extending your information management workflow into your email inbox, I suggest you check out MailTags.
MailTags fully integrates with Mail and expands its capabilities in a couple of ways: You can assign tags (like Gmail’s Labels) and projects to emails, color-code and highlight emails as important, and you can add notes to emails. In addition, MailTags improves your task management by letting you set a date when you want to see an email again, and it allows you to create events and tasks in iCal without ever leaving Mail.
If you want to learn more about MailTags, check back with academiPad in the next few days. A more in-depth review is coming soon. Also, MailTags is part of the Productive Macs bundle that offers you 8 Mac apps for $40. Unless you have already a good information management workflow in place, this bundle is a good investment, as MailTags alone would normally cost you 30 bucks.
You can check my review of the Productive Macs bundle here. The bundle is available until Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 8:00 AM (GMT/UTC time).
Recap: Three steps for fighting the chaos in your email inbox
In short, you can take control over your email inbox by reducing the amount of junk coming in, by opening your inbox seldomly but always with purpose, and by extending your information management workflow into your email inbox. With these three steps, you can battle down the chaos in your inbox and say good-bye to information overload.
The only problem is that once your students/colleagues know about your email ninja tricks, you won’t have any excuse left for not answering their emails. Use at your own risk!
Disclaimer: Image source unknown.