Stem the Digital Tide: Get Your Inbox to Zero
by Reba J. Nance
ne of the biggest struggles we face is keeping up with the sheer volume of emails we receive. Before email (and voicemail), it was difficult to keep up with everything — now it’s impossible.
We’ve all had days where we’ve spent 10 hours in the office and wondered where the day went, feeling like we’ve spent all day dealing with emails and have little to show for it. Keeping up with email is a battle we’re all losing, but there are things you can do to get it more under control. As with most battles, the best way to approach it is from a couple of different fronts.
Tame Your Inbox
The first thing you need to do is get your inbox to zero.
Most of us have our inboxes in chronological order, with the newest messages on top. To start, re-sort your list of messages with the oldest messages on top. Chances are you can now delete a number of old messages because you’ve already handled them or they are so old they don’t require a response.
Next, re-sort by sender. Now you can delete ones from senders like "Travelocity" letting you know there’s a fare sale, or people you don’t know, or people you didn’t want to hear from (like your best friend’s father who regularly sends you links to cute kitten videos). At this point, you’ll be surprised at how many emails you’ve deleted already!
Finally, re-sort the remaining emails by the subject. This puts all the emails with the same subject together so now you can easily get rid of all the emails that were sent back and forth on a particular topic. For instance, you may have exchanged a series of emails with your client in an attempt to set up a meeting. By listings those all by subject (or thread), you can delete them all at once.
In theory, the remaining emails require your attention. Some will need to be filed in email folders you keep. Some you can move out of your email client and onto your hard drive for storage with tools such as Adobe Acrobat. Others will be tasks you need to work on.
Stay on Track
After you’ve tamed your inbox, the challenge is to keep it under control! Outlook and Gmail have some amazing features to help you, but you need to know what they are and how to use them. You can view my tips for using these email clients at bit.ly/10n3jDD (but please note this is on the Colorado Bar Association website, so you will need to log in).
Here are some other tips to keep your inbox empty:
Be savvy with your subjects
Use subject lines that are descriptive; this allows you to locate emails by subject.
Avoid subject lines such as "Hi" or "Help, please."
Don’t ask a new question at the end of an existing email (with an existing subject line). Start a new email thread with a new subject line.
Create folders so emails aren’t "loose" and get lost.
Learn how to use "rules" to automatically put into designated folders messages from listservs or other frequent senders that don’t require immediate attention.
Turn off the "you’ve got mail!" notification so you don’t get distracted.
Use a task feature to delegate — it will keep each task on your list so you won’t forget to check that it’s been done. The task feature will also allow you to create and keep track of your own to-dos.
Learn to create recurring appointments for regular meetings, birthdays, and other events.
Change the color of emails from important senders to see them more easily.
Get a separate email you use only for clients, the court, and other business, as well as a separate email you use only for shopping on the Internet, newsletters, and emails from companies or organizations to cut down on spam.
Take time to unsubscribe from senders you don’t want to hear from.
Schedule times to check emails so you can create quiet times to work uninterrupted.
Still Feeling Overwhelmed?
Remember, habits take time to develop. Keep at it. Set aside time every day to deal with the messages you received that day. If you do, you’re on your way to gaining more control over your work — and your life! D
Reba J. Nance is the director of Law Practice and Risk Management for the Colorado Bar Association. She can be reached at email@example.com.