Managing your mail, before it manages you

A few weeks ago, my sister discovered an email informing her she’d won an Honorable Mention in a songwriting contest. The email was a year old. She suffers from what so many other internet users do: email clutter. It can take over an inbox and consume hours of productivity. It can also prevent us from reading important notices (like that long-passed contest) or bills, which may have negative financial implications.

For small business owners and non-profits, this can especially affect the bottom line if you’re not responding to customer inquiries in a timely manner. There is an annual Clean Out Your Inbox week every January, but it’s never a BAD time to get back on track to managing your email flow. Here are my tips:

  1.  Change the way you view your inbox. Email is a communication tool, not a to-do list. Use productivity tools like BasecampEvernoteGoogle Drive, or Dropbox to keep track of your to-dos. If there are important instructions you’ll need to refer to later, Ctrl + C/Crtl + V that info into your preferred tool. It will keep everything organized and in one place!
  2. Set a time limit. One of the biggest time-wasters in today’s work day is email. Setting an actual limit on the time can help keep that in check. If you don’t respond to everything you wanted to, that’s OK. Get something concrete accomplished, then come back and finish up later. And don’t forget that timer! Most cell phones have them built-in, so there’s no excuse to ignore the clock!
  3. Don’t do it first thing in the morning! There are a lot of reasons/excuses for checking email first thing. Maybe you were waiting on a response to a request, or maybe you just can’t stand that little notification number on your smart phone screen. Whatever the reason, it’s OK to delay. Here’s a great article that sums up seven reasons for avoiding your inbox first thing in the morning.
  4. Schedule a newsletter cleanse at least quarterly. What kind of cleanse? Not the one where you delete everything, but the one where you attack mail at the source. How many newsletters are you signed up for that you don’t read? Are there other ways that you get the same information? Social media like Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook? While marketers (like me) will often encourage people to sign up for email lists, end users and businesses (like you) must have a threshold. So spend a day every few months clicking that “Unsubscribe” button for those items that would normally rate an immediate trip to the trash folder. You’ll thank yourself when that cascade of emails finally slows!