5 Tips to Stem the E-mail Tide

Facing an inbox so congested that you can’t bear to look at it? Spending your days responding to other people’s demands instead of focusing on your priorities? Feeling like you have no hope of making any dent in the pile? If this sounds familiar, read on for 5 tips on how to stem the e-mail tide.

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5. Ruthlessly unsubscribe. Weekly e-mail digests from message boards you don’t visit? Newsletters that you’re always meaning to read but never seem to get around to opening? The first step to stemming the e-mail tide is to minimize the deluge of incoming information. If you haven’t opened a message from a distribution list for the past month, chances are you won’t this month either. Unsubscribe! I recommend checking out deseat.me for information on what online accounts are associated with your e-mail address, so that you can eliminate them in one fell swoop. If you can’t bring yourself to cut the cord, hook yourself up with an RSS feed reader to follow along with your favorite blogs and articles, and get the e-mails out of your inbox. Now, you’re checking the latest content when it’s convenient for you—and not for the sender.

4. Limit the cc’s. Be explicit with your staff about what types of e-mails require your cc. If you think the answer is everything, it’s not. Maybe you reach a compromise where your staff keep you copied on the final decisions/outcomes instead of the intervening problem solving traffic. Or perhaps you request that you are cc’ed when it comes to a sensitive topic (e.g., schedule, budget) or a high-priority client.

3. Separate e-mail and to-do’s. Create an organizational system outside of your e-mail that serves as your to do list. This way, you won’t find yourself immersed in your e-mail all day (and therefore susceptible to distractions when a shiny new message comes in.) When I started using a Kanban board to organize my tasks, I was able to take e-mail off my phone. I could check on the status of my projects after hours if and when I wanted to—not when another person’s message dictated that I should.

2. Implement rules manager. Program your inbox to do the hard work for you. For example, I set rules to categorize incoming messages that require action into a specific action folder. I auto delete automated system notifications. I auto folder other messages, like expense reports. If there are any newsletters that you can’t subscribe to using an RSS feed reader, forward the messages to an external repository for later review (I use Trello.) The fewer things in your inbox that you have to process, the better.

1. Seek e-mail alternatives. Evaluating the best medium for your communications can be one way to reduce the amount of incoming messages. I know some PMs that try to eliminate meetings and instead find themselves a slave to their e-mails. As an extrovert, I’d rather spend my day with people than a machine. Even if you’re introverted, sometimes forcing yourself to pick up the phone for a 2-minute call or sending an IM or walking to someone’s desk is a faster way of answering your question than having to read through a lengthy e-mail chain. If it’s not clear after the first e-mail, then stop. Collaborate. And listen to your peers, instead of trying to decipher what their e-mail means.

Once you’ve implemented these 5 tips, you’ll be well on your way to the nirvana that is inbox zero.