Putting the kibosh on internal email is pretty extreme. But it can also sound appealing; after all, hasn’t every professional at one point dreamed of dealing with a bursting inbox by shutting down their account?
Good news: you can take a more moderate (and ultimately, more productive) approach. Follow these four best practices to make your inbox far more manageable.
Snooze Your Emails
A new message arrives, and you immediately know it’ll be time-consuming or tedious to deal with. So rather than opening it, you leave it unopened in your inbox. And then it sits there—until finally, a couple hours (or even days) later, you respond. Sound familiar?
Unfortunately, it turns out treating your inbox like a to-do list is a huge productivity drain. That’s thanks to the Zeigarnik Effect: every time you leave a task unfinished, your mind instinctively returns to it over and over again, killing your focus.
The solution—for your inbox, at least—is to snooze your emails. Once they’re out of sight, they’re out of mind; plus, you can schedule them to pop back into your queue at the optimal time.
Inbox by Gmail has this function built in. Pick an individual message, click the clock icon, and choose how long you want it snoozed.
Gmail users can download Boomerang, an email add-on that lets you take messages out of your inbox until you need them again. Boomerang also comes with some other nifty features, like email scheduling and reminders.
If you use another email client, like Outlook, Yahoo, or AOL, check out SaneBox. Along with snoozing, it offers a ton of email power tools—however, the most lightweight version starts at $7 per month.
Do you frequently email customers or prospects? Streak, a CRM tool, might be a good option. Along with deal-tracking features, its free version comes with email snoozing.
Most people answer emails periodically: two here, one there, and so on. However, the cost of “task-switching” makes this method extremely counter-productive. One study found that, on average, it takes someone 23 minutes to resume a task after a two-minute interruption. Another study discovered the typical professional gets an email every five minutes. Add it all up, and your entire workday is consumed by messages.
Luckily, the researchers say you can dramatically boost your focus by checking every 45 minutes, rather than keeping an email tab constantly open.
Want even bigger gains? Try email batching. With this system, you set aside three or four concrete blocks of time each day to sort through your inbox. For example, you might read and answer emails for 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes at 1 P.M., and 30 minutes at night.
Of course, sticking to this schedule is easier said than done. Inbox Pause is a big help: its sole purpose is temporarily “pausing” your emails so that you don’t see any new ones until a specific time.
Alternatively, use a time management app like RescueTime or StayFocusd to block your email URL. (Don’t forget to also turn off email notifications for your phone and desktop as well.)
And no matter what tools you use, give people the heads-up. Your OOO message should explain when you’re available via email, as well as provide a phone number for timely requests.
You waste precious minutes every time you type out a new version of a message you’ve already sent. Luckily, there’s an easy fix: create templates for all of your “default” emails.
For instance, if you schedule meetings with fellow entrepreneurs once or twice a week, you might make this template:
Are you still interested in meeting for COFFEE/LUNCH/DINNER this week to discuss TOPIC? If so, let’s go to PLACE on DAY at TIME. My number is 917-867-5309 if you need to reach me.
It’s easy enough to keep these templates in Evernote, Apple Notes, OneNote, or another note-taking app; when you need to use one, just copy and paste it into a fresh email.
However, using a template tool is even more efficient. Tuckerman & Co co-founder Amanda Rinderle uses Alfred, a Mac productivity tool. Rinderle explains the “snippet” feature—which lets you create keyboard shortcuts for text snippets—is “great for when you have to write the same emails over and over.”
Gorgias and aText let you program custom hotkeys for templates as well. Open up an email, tap your hotkeys (for instance, I use “:ty” for thank-you notes), and your message is automatically inserted. You can drop in aText templates anywhere, anytime if you're using a Mac. However, if you're mostly needing templates for email, Gorgias offers a free Chrome extension to create custom, personalized templates.
Set the Right Expectations
If you want to receive shorter, snappier emails, then send shorter, snappier emails. According to the Communication Accommodation theory, we adjust our delivery to match the person we’re talking to—in other words, “monkey read, monkey write.”
Let’s say your new employee sends you long, rambling missives. If you make a point of sending concise replies, it won’t take long before his own start shrinking.
Adding NRN (No Response Necessary) to the end of “just FYI” emails will help as well.
And rather than making email your default form of communication, make it your last choice. Team chat tools like Basecamp and Slack are usually faster; plus, if you have a quick interaction in a public chat room, all of your employees can read it—meaning you’ll avoid answering the same questions again and again.
In that same spirit, consider using a team update tool like Weekdone. This app collects daily updates from your team members and compiles them into a streamlined weekly newsletter. Rather than individually checking in with each person (which’ll balloon your inbox), you’ll only receive one message.
Setting up a meeting or phone call usually requires a long back-and-forth. You can avoid this exchange with Calendly, a scheduling app. After you select a couple available slots, you send those options to your recipient. They pick one, and the meeting is automatically added to your calendar. You can also use Assistant.to. This app simplifies the process even further by monitoring your availability and letting the other person select a mutually convenient time—ultimately saving you at least three messages.
Last, but certainly not least, you can always talk to someone face-to-face or over the phone. Miscommunication is always less likely when you’ve got verbal, facial, and gestural cues, so in the long run, this approach is more efficient.
Some professionals are so dedicated they regularly reach inbox zero. But if you always have a couple unread emails, don’t stress. Fully wrangling your inbox into submission is a monumental task—as long as you’re keeping things under control, life is good.