How many emails do you have in your inbox? Need some tips to help clear out your inbox? You can increase your productivity and reduce your email anxiety by doing 3 things: make behavioral changes; employ technology hacks; and effectively managing our sent mail. Let’s clear out your inbox!

 

CONTENTS

  • Summary
  • Resources
  • Transcript

SUMMARY

“Let’s Clear Out Your Inbox”

RE-DEFINE THE ROLE OF EMAIL

  • Email is not something to check off of your TO DO list. Doing email is not an accomplishment.  
  • Email is something that you can use to get the real work done. Email is a tool.

BEHAVIORAL CHANGES 

  • Batch your email time and turn off notifications
  • Sort by subject and filter when you’re feeling overwhelmed
  • Set alerts for high priority senders
  • Unsubscribe from emails that you rarely read
  • Create different email addresses for different purposes, such as work or subscriptions or personal
  • Use folders and only touch each email once
  • If all else fails – Delete (or at least archive) your inbox.

TECH HACKS 

  • A few tech-related things that you can set up once, and then forget about:
    • turn off notifications
    • prioritize key senders 
    • setting up your folders 
  • Set up Canned Responses

OPTIMIZE YOUR SENT MAIL

  • Keep it concise.  Be brief.
  • Customize the title
  • Reduce the # of emails you send and the # of people you CC

 


RESOURCES

Dr. Andrea Wojnicki & Talk About Talk 

Books

Podcasts

Email History & Statistics

Tips On Conquering Your Inbox

Technology


TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to Talk About Talk.  I’m your executive communication coach, Dr. Andrea Wojnicki.  Please call me Andrea. 

Well, it’s the end of the calendar year, a time when many of us like to wipe the slate clean.  A time when we seek to adopt new, improved habits. A new year, a new you.  Maybe even a new, cleaned out email inbox.  What do you think? 

I think it’s the perfect time to clear out our email inbox and adopt some new habits to help us keep on top of it. In this episode,  you’ll hear a reboot of TalkAboutTalk episode #32. In just 30 minutes, you’ll learn how to reconceptualize  the role of email, plus some behavioral hacks, all to help you reduce our email anxiety AND increase our general productivity. Sound good?

My suggestion: listen to this episode, then decide which 2-3 of these suggestions you want to adopt. Are you ready??? 

According to research, people spend an average of 2½ hrs a day on personal email and over 3 hours on work email.  That’s over 5½ hrs a day!  That’s CRAZY!!!!

 

So… I just counted. I have 91 emails in my inbox, 12 are unread. What about you? How many emails do you have in your inbox?

      “Oh, that’s a very personal question. I have right now, in my in my company email box, I have 988 emails. Although I met a client yesterday who has over 10,000 unopened.”

You may recognize that voice.  That was Baron Manett, president of Per Se Brand Experience and the Talk About Talk guest I interviewed for episode #21 – focused on communicating TRUST.  You’ll hear more from him in a minute.  

In this episode, you’ll learn tactics and strategies to help you conquer your email inbox.  My goal for us is twofold.  I want to share ways that we can: 

  1. reduce our email anxiety and
  2. increase our general productivity.  

Sound good? I know this is something that’s probably important to you. Email anxiety is something that many Talk About Talk listeners have shared with me. 

I have another Q for you. Do you remember life before email? I guess that depends on how old you are.  The first real email system was developed in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson.  Funny I haven’t heard of him… I mean, at this point we might be cursing him.  But seriously,  what a legacy, right? Ray Tomlinson also pioneered using the at “@” symbol, btw.  Safe to say he did change the world.

Nowadays it’s difficult to remember life before email, isn’t it? Email went from:

  • something that a few nerdy folks were using in universities;
  • to a communication tool in some big companies; 
  • to a cute reference in Hollywood

That was 20 years ago.  Do you remember that sound? And the movie – starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks?

There was Hotmail, then Yahoo!, then Gmail – and nowadays both companies and firms are personalizing their email domain.  Yes, I am andrea@talkabouttalk, just in case you want to bombard me!

Today, half of the world’s population uses email.  And people complain about their email all the time. According to research, we receive an average (that’s AVERAGE) of over 120 emails a day. We are overwhelmed with unnecessary emails, emails that we subscribe to, spam, and the sheer size of our inbox is a source of stress! 

In response, we now have books, articles, courses and podcasts focused on managing email. Frankly, just skimming some of this material can also be overwhelming.  Trust me – I did this for us.  But – it was worth it!

A few weeks ago, I asked you to share with to me your questions or suggestions for how to conquer your email inbox! Thanks so much to all of you who posted or emailed or called me!  Listen to this:

      “Hey, Andrea, it’s Kimberly here. I hear you are doing a podcast on helping to manage emails. I have over 14,000 unread emails. Oh gosh…”

OK – let me interject. First – I appreciate Kimberley’s honesty here.  I also have to say that Kimberley has the best laugh!  Here she is again:

       “…So I need some tips and tricks. I’m really good at the beginning when I start to clear them out. And then it gets away from me. I need your help. Thank you.”

Thank YOU, Kimberley! I hope that after listening to this episode, Kimberley – and you – will learn some perspectives that will help you conquer your inbox.

There’s a lot to digest here.  After doing all the research in preparation for this episode, I classified the advice into three categories:

  1. behavioral changes – actions you can take to minimize the stress and effectively respond to important emails.
  2. technology hacks – include tips that can help us with email, as well as apps, plug-ins and other software.
  3. tips for sending emails – if you reduce your email output, your inbox will shrink too.

I’m hopeful that just one or two things that you hear will inspire you to experiment and make a change – a change that will ultimately reduce your stress and improve your productivity. As always, you can find all of the links and references in the shownotes on the Talk About Talk.com website.

BEHAVIOURAL CHANGES

On my quest for tips on how to conquer our mailbox, I did a lot of reading, as I said.  I also got some great input from Talk About Talk listeners. Listen to this:

 

      “Hi, Andrea. It’s Heidi. I heard that you were looking for some email hacks for managing your email inbox. I’m a VP and I work in client advisory services and I manage a team. A lot of my day is focused on what is coming in through my email. So it’s a huge part of my day. And if I don’t manage it correctly, I will definitely have some stresses. 

      So a couple of tips that I do… When I’m coming back from vacation (I just came back from a two week vacation), I like to sort things by subject. That way when there’s a back-and-forth about a particular topic, I can delete six or seven emails that come before it. And then I just read the last one from the bottom up. So I’ve got the full history, and I don’t need to go through all the back-and-forth that got me there. Just managing the volume is a big stress relief in and of itself. 

       Another tip I use is I set alerts for priority senders. Those priority senders would be people like my boss, or my main client. It’s really, really important to me that I see those emails first, and then that I respond to them first if they need immediate action. 

      Finally, I manage a large team and they are driven by what comes in through their emails. My direction to them is what I do myself, particularly when I’m really busy. I will set up an hour before I get into the office, and I simply respond to all emails. I then spend my time at work, doing work. I don’t pay attention to what’s going on in my inbox. At the end of the day I spend on email, responding to people and also setting up tasks for the next day. I don’t let email rule my day. And I tell my staff the same thing. It’s not an always-on technology. If people need to get in touch with you and they’re desperate, they’ll find other means such as text or phone. 

      Hope that’s helpful. Love your podcast!”

Thank you Heidi.  What a great place to start.  My favourite quote of Heidi’s is that Email is NOT an “always on” technology.  That’s consistent with my first 2 suggestions for behavioral changes: first, changing your definition of email, and second, blocking or batching email in your day.

 

 (1) Defining the role of email

I first considered this change in mindset regarding email over a year ago when I listened to a Tim Ferriss podcast episode where he interviews Drew Houston, the CEO of Dropbox. Drew has an interesting take on email.  He says that most of the email we receive is OPP.  What’s OPP?  It’s “Other People’s Problems” (or – Other People’s Priorities). He said he realized that triaging our way through our inbox is actually  checking off other people’s TO DO list.  Hmm.  And furthermore, “doing email is reactive.”

That REALLY got me thinking.  

One of my favourite behavioral economists, Dan Ariely, the author of “Predictably Irrational” says that removing emails from your inbox is just a form of procrastination. It gives a false sense of accomplishment while putting off the real work that needs to be done

So it seems there’s something to this. 

In her book, Unsubscribe: How to kill email anxiety, avoid distractions, and get real work done,” Jocelyn Glei lists three psychological principles that make email so compelling:

  1. First – email provides a variable reward scheduleIt’s like a slot machine. We never know when the important message might arrive. So we keep checking…
  2. Second, there’s social debt It’s like reciprocity. When someone takes the time to send us a message, we often feel like we need to respond (and if we don’t respond, we feel guilty.)  I know I’m guilty of that!!!!
  3. And last, the 3rd psychological principle that makes email so compelling is the completion biasThat’s what the behavioral economist Dan Ariely was describing. Whether it’s sending out an email or reaching inbox-zero, getting things done gives us a sense of completion. That feels good and provides us with another dopamine hit. We feel like we’re making progress when really, we’re distracted from the real work.

This summer, there was an interesting article in The NewYorker entitled Was Email a Mistake?” 

I would suggest that email itself is not the mistake.  It’s not the issue.  The issue is how we define its role. Here is something to consider:

  • Email is not something to check off of your TO DO list.
  • Doing email is not an accomplishment.  
  • Email is something that you can use to get the real work done.  
  • Email is a tool.

 

(2) Batch Your Email Time & Turn off Notifications

Consistent with this new definition of email, it makes sense to batch email time.  The listener Heidi, whom you just heard, said she batches email into two day parts.  First thing in the morning, and then the end of the workday.  That makes sense to me.

I call this one “Batch your email time and turn off notifications,” because they really are the same thing.  Why would you have notifications turned on if you are batching?  Turn off those email notifications, people!

This advice was also suggested in a Harvard Business Review article that I found helpful.  I’ll leave a link to it in the shownotes

Personally, I’ve started doing this, batching my email time, and I feel like it is one of the most effective things you can do to tackle your inbox.

I found some statistics that reported that 82% of US workers check their work email at least every few hours outside of normal work hours.(Statista) and 90% of US workers check their personal email at least every few hours during normal work hours.(Statista)   WOW.

Can you imagine the increase in productivity if we went from checking email every few hours to doing it all in two pre-specified blocks of time?

The same thing goes for social media, BTW  (that may be worthy of another episode!)

I have to add one caveat here. This suggestion of batching emails isn’t for everyone, depending on the pace and expectations of your work environment.  If your boss or your client demand immediate responses, then that’s what you have to do.

That said, I challenge you to try. Turn off your notifications and schedule in a block of time to do email.  Then at last you’ll be more conscious of the time you spend on email, as opposed to being a thing you do mindlessly.  Try closing your email and notifications, except for the  times when you’re scheduled to focus on it.

Heidi also mentioned 

(3) Sorting By Subject when you’re overwhelmed with email.  Personally, I’ve done that too, when my email inbox is getting unruly. And I found this recommendation in several sources that I read.  It is a fast and effective way to delete a lot of what’s in your inbox. So use the filtering function. If there’s a chain of email on a topic, only the most recent gets to sit in your inbox. Everything else is filed., or preferably, deleted.

 

(4) Set alerts for high priority senders

Heidi mentioned this too, and it makes sense.  Label your top priority contacts – your clients, your boss, your spouse. Make them show up first. So when you do sit down to tackle your inbox, the high priority senders get your attention first, and you don’t get distracted by lower priority emails.

 

Another listener highlighted this as a suggestion as well.  Listen to this:

      “Hey Andrea. It’s Richard calling. I heard you’re doing a show on managing your email inbox. I’ve got a couple of hacks that I’d like to share with people. So the first is, there’s a way for you to create some canned responses in advance. So let’s say if you’re working in Gmail, you can go into settings and then advanced and you turn on canned responses. 

      Now I don’t love the term “canned” because it makes it sound a little impersonal. But you can actually customize these as you go. So if you write a response that you really like and you want to use it again in the future, you can click on those three little dots down in the bottom right corner of a Gmail reply, and you’ll see “canned responses.” You can add your existing response into an inventory of replies. And then if you want to use it again in the future, you go down and click on it and it puts it into your email and then you can add some personal touches for that each person gets a nice reply. That one really speeds up getting back to people in a timely way. 

       The second one is in Gmail . I split my inbox into two sides.

One side is the list of all the different emails that I received in the day – and I get well over 100. And on the right side, I’ve actually populated it with starred responses. So I star an email that I know is important that I have to reply to you, but I don’t have time to get back to them right now. And that gives me a chance to go back to it. And I also star automatically certain senders, because they’re important to me, and I want to make sure I catch them in the long list of emails that I received. 

      So there you go, a couple of different hacks. Hopefully, those are useful to everybody. And I just want to say, absolutely love your show. Can’t wait to hear some more episodes.”

 

Wow.  Thank you so much, Richard.  So in addition to setting alerts or prioritizing key senders, he also suggests using Canned Responses.  We will get into that in a minute when we talk about technology.

 

 (5) UNSUBSCRIBE from distribution lists that you don’t read regularly.  Yes, even the ones that you feel like you need to read for FOMO, but you still never do. I’m not telling you to unsubscribe from EVERYTHING.  But rather, objectively evaluate which ones you open and read,  and which ones you don’t. The criteria isn’t “which ones I wish I read” its “which ones I ACTUALLY read!”

I can tell you as a podcaster that there are many podcaster email distribution lists for podcasters. I find that the daily ones are way too much.   So – I just took this advice and I unsubscribed from 3 of them.  

I’m not saying delete ALL your email subscriptions. Be selective.  Ironically, when I was doing research for this episode, I also subscribed to a few emails, including the GTD (Getting Things Done) newsletter from David Allen, one of the world’s foremost productivity experts. 

Here’s a Q. Can you guess what’s the #1 reason that people unsubscribe from email distribution lists? It’s not a tough one.  People typically unsubscribe because they get  Too many emails  !!!!!

Here’s a quick hack to help you make this unsubscribe process fast and painless.  Go into your inbox and search for the term “unsubscribe.” Look at the list of emails that comes up, and chop or unsubscribe from anything that you don’t read regularly.  Keep in mind that most, if not all, of that content is available online anyway. You probably don’t need it cluttering up your inbox. 

 

(6) Create Different Email Addresses

You could have one for work.  One for online shopping and subscriptions. And a personal email for family & friends.

Here’s Baron Manett, again, this time with his description of using multiple email addresses – and more:

      “There’s sort of three things that I try and think about. The first one is who I give my name to. So I have multiple email addresses based on what I’m using email for. Obviously, corporate email, my business email I and I have a couple different personal emails. For example, personal interest signups or subscriptions. I find using multiple emails allows me to segment … so I can know what’s worth my time. 

      Technology can really help. I have email scheduler. So when an email comes up, do I want to deal with it right now? Do I need to get some more consensus? Or do I want to put it off for a later day where I can think about it and respond more appropriately. So I actually use an email program called Spark. And that allows me to hit reminder and flag different emails at different times. 

       And then ongoing as I think filing like getting rid of those emails. Do you know is that do you have to save it? It’s so great, how you’re going to find it later? Or can you delete and clean out as much as possible because so much of what we are saving we don’t need.

      So those are the the things that I think helped me survive the email apocalypse.”

 

(7) Use Folders & Only Touch Once

Baron also mentions filing emails immediately.  This suggestion gets a lot of traction, from productivity experts, based on what  I’ve read.  It’s actually 2 things: setting up folders or files AND only touching emails once.

Set up folders and use them. – less is more. I mentioned the productivity guru David Allen and his GTD or Getting Things Done.  David suggests deleting, responding (in two minutes) or less, delegating, or deferring each email.  Deferring means adding to your TO DO list, which should also be avoided.  I put a link to a the Getting Things Done book in the shownotes. 

If you’re like me, you probably have a lot of folders.  The advice I read was to minimize the number of folders you keep. We exaggerate in our minds the significance of each email and particularly the importance of where it should be filed.  So keep it simple and minimize the number of folders you have. 

Once you’ve sorted or filed the emails, you can always use the search function to find emails.  

The other part of this suggestion is to only touch each email once the OHIO rule: Only handle it once. Have you heard of that? Move every email out of your inbox the first time you read it. According to David Allen and GTD, we should only take action on emails when we know it’ll take less than two minutes.  This reminds me of Gretchen Rubin, the Happiness guru who encourages us to do anything immediately that will take less than one minute – be it responding to an email or putting your dishes away or…  the one-minute rule.

 

(8) Delete Your Inbox

Several sources I found suggested that deleting your entire inbox and starting from zero is a good option for some people. Start with a clean slate and new habits. 

For some time, Inbox Zero was a goal that seemed to get some traction, but that’s fallen out of favor.  Again, email is the tool, not the project, right?  Still, having zero emails in your inbox might reduce your stress.  If your inbox is truly unruly, I suggest that you Copy your entire inbox into a folder called ARCHIVE & THE DATE.  Then, you can start with a clean slate, armed with these suggestions for how to manage your inbox effectively.

 

Summary of BEHAVIORAL CHANGES you can make to manage your inbox:

  • Redefining the role of email
  • Batching your email time and turning off notifications
  • Sorting by subject and filtering when you’re feeling overwhelmed
  • Setting alerts for high priority senders
  • Unsubscribing from emails that you rarely read
  • Creating different email address for different purposes, such as work or subscriptions or personal
  • Using folders and only touching each email once
  • If all else fails – deleting (or at least archiving) your inbox.

 

TECHNOLOGY HACKS

Some of the things we’ve already discussed might be considered technology hacks, like turning off notifications, prioritizing key senders, or setting up your folders.  These are all tech-related things that you can set up once, and then forget about it.  So… how about you do those things right now, if you haven’t already?

The Talk About Talk listener Richard who you heard a few minutes ago also suggested setting up Canned Responses.  What are Canned Responses

Well, if there’s a message that you send over and over, you don’t need to write it from scratch each time. Reuse what you’ve already written by making a template or canned response, as Gmail calls it.

Richard highlighted that this might seem highly impersonal, but you CAN customize the email, so don’t worry about that.

THANK YOU for this suggestion, Richard! I realize this hack is definitely one that I should adopt. I need to do this.  I have a few emails that I send regularly, particularly when I’m setting up interviews with guest experts.  I find I am re-writing the same email over and over.  So I’m going to try this.

A few examples of other types of emails that you may send frequently might include  “thanks but I’m not interested”, or a confirmation receipt, or an email with your bio and social media and contacts.

Once you have these templates set up, you can reply to messages that would otherwise take up unnecessary time – without even thinking much it, letting you focus on more important work.

Now – on to other tech hacks. 

 

Tech hacks that you can try:

  • A few tech-related things that you can set up once, and then forget about: 
    • turning off notifications
    • prioritizing key senders, and 
    • setting up your folders.
  • Set up canned responses, as Richard suggested
  • There are Email apps and solutions, including:
    • Superhuman 
    • Spark, and
    • Slack.  

 

Tips on SENDING Email

Here’s the thing: we don’t want to add fuel to this email fire!

Here are 3 simple ways to optimize your sent mail:

 

1. Make it short & Get to the point upfront in your email. We all know you can write and you have lots of amazing things to share.  But now is not the time.  If all we reduce our verbiage by 50%, can you imagine the impact?  And it is contagious – others will follow. Humans adapt their words and their communication styles to conform to their ingroups. You might consider joining the 5 sentences movement. Challenge yourself to never write more than  five-sentences reply in your emails. Anything beyond five sentences is a phone call or in-person meeting. 

 

2. Customizing the title to be more specific and action oriented. One piece of research I found concluded that  The open rate increases by 17% when the subject line is personalized. Another study said 50%? !!! Anyway, customizing your email title will help the receiver focus quickly on the subject matter AND it might also help you find the email later in your sent mail folder, in case you need to find it.  The email title could be anything from “not urgent – just checking in” to “Response Required: approval of documents please”.  Personally, I do this when I’m booking Talk About Talk interviewees.  So for example, I’ll title the email: “Confirming October 10th 10am Talk About Talk podcast interview”  That way it’s clear what the email is about and it reinforces the details. 

 

3. Minimize the # of emails you send AND the # of receivers you include for each of your emails. Ask yourself first – do I need to respond?  If not, file or delete it.  If you do need to reply, ask yourself whether everyone in the email really needs to see your response.  Your default should be NO THEY DO NOT! Try not to CC so many people. Remember: the more you send, the more you receive..  (We don’t need research to tell us that.!) It just makes sense.  Email is like karma.  You get what you give.  Hmm..

 

There you are- 3 simple ways to optimize your sent mail:

  • Keep it concise
  • Customize the title
  • Reduce the # of emails you send and the # of people you CC

 

CONCLUSION

OK – that’s it!  We’ve covered a LOT here, including behavioral changes you can make to conquer your inbox, some technology hacks that you can set up, and then a few ways to optimize your sent emails.

 

Remember we had two goals for this episode:

  1. Minimize your stress; 
  2. Highlight some ways to help you effectively respond to important emails in a timely manner.

 

I’ve highlighted many things for you to consider here.  There’s a one-pager in the shownotes that lists them all – yes – succinctly.  

 

So what are you going to do first? Let me tell you what I’ve started doing, thanks to my research for this episode:

  • I am now thinking about email as a tool, not a project.
  • I’ve also started batching my email time.  That’s a big one.
  • And just today I unsubscribed from 3 daily email subscriptions

Over the next few days I’ll create some canned responses and I think I’ll set up another email address and use it for subscriptions and online shopping.  That just makes sense.

What about you?  What actions will you take to tackle your inbox?  Please email – yes email (!!!) me (or you can post on social media) and let me know.  I would love to hear what you tried and how it goes!!  

Now’s when I ask you to sign up for the Talk About Talk free weekly email newsletter.  That may seem like a contradiction, but let me tell you why it won’t add to your email clutter.  This email is WEEKLY.  No more than once a week.  And it’s short.  I always make it as concise as possible, while including links if you want to learn more about how to become a more effective communicator.

Alright – that’s it.  

 

THANK YOU for listening! (and READING!)

 

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