This post was first published on October 29, 2008.
Ah, email – a portal to the outside world for any stay-at-home parent. It’s such a helpful tool for communicating with friends and family near and far, for taking care of some household tasks with less transportation, and even providing endless opportunities for working from home.
But there’s a fine line between when you’re your own inbox master, and when you become its slave.
If you’re like me, you get a lot of email. And it can easily get overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that you’ve found that if you put off replying long enough, the email’s topic then becomes old news, and you’re off the hook from communicating back. But you feel like a jerk.
Here are a few tips for taming that inbox monster, and training it to serve you, not the other way around.
Transform Your Inbox Into a Thing of Beauty
Photo by Lee
Set aside a set chunk of time to read, respond to, and archive your email inbox. Make it part of your daily routine to handle email at the most appropriate time of day.
For parents, the “best” time of day can fall all over the clock, and sometimes, you don’t have more than five minutes at a time. But as much as you’re able, dedicate a set time of day when you do nothing but email. Right now, I set aside 30 minutes every morning, afternoon, and evening dedicated to my inbox (remember, I get a lot of email).
Then close out your email client. This is something I definitely need to be better with, because I know first-hand how tempting it is to leave your inbox open, “just in case.” Closing out that tab can feel like cutting off a medium of communication with the world, but you know what? — that’s exactly what it is. By leaving it open, you’re making yourself available to anyone who beckons your call, even if you don’t actually open any emails.
Very rarely is there an email emergency. When there’s nothing you’re waiting for, close your email client when you’re done. You’ll be more present in the world around you, and able to concentrate on your task at hand.
Use Gmail. Yes, I’ve already waxed poetic about its benefits, and I know there are other email clients who do a good job. But I’ve found Gmail to be the most useful of them all, and I doubt I’ll change anytime soon.
You don’t need to change your preferred email address and send out a notice to friends — you can simply filter your current email address into your Gmail account (you can import quite a few addresses), and use the Gmail interface for all your addresses.
During your inbox focus time, take action immediately on every. single. email you open. Don’t just read it and leave it – do something with it.
How I Handle My Own Inbox
Photo by Patrick Rhone
Read and Archive
• Most emails just require me to read them without a response – I quickly read and archive them. I also take full advantage of Gmail’s labeling system, and label most of my emails with things like potential advertisers, etsy orders, or post ideas (for those of you readers who write me questions).
• If it’s an email that requires a quick, three-sentence-or-less response, I reply to it immediately. Then I archive it. I know some people who put a link in their signature to sentenc.es, explaining their philosophy on having short replies, and possibly spreading the idea to others.
Star and Archive, then Reply
• If the email looks like it requires a longer reply, or if it requires me to look up a bit of info, I “star” it and then archive it. When I’ve gone through my inbox, I then click on the starred items (in the left-hand sidebar in Gmail) and work my way through replying, starting with the oldest email.
• I close out Gmail after my 30 minutes are up, regardless how many starred emails I have left. If they’re filtered with a star, then they’re not urgent, though they still need a response soon. This is why I have my contact form prefaced with an explanation that I probably won’t get to responding right away.
During my next email session, I repeat the whole process, starting with my inbox and then proceeding to the older starred items.
At the end of the day, there are always emails to which I haven’t yet replied. But I’m okay with that, because I’ve taken action on all of them. And because I close out Gmail, I don’t feel pulled and swayed by my emails that come all day – I just concentrate on them fully at one set time. This definitely aligns with my single-tasking philosophy.
I also use filters so that certain emails bypass my inbox altogether. For example, when I’m doing giveaways, I filter all my emails that have the right secret code in the subject line with the label giveaway, and archive them before they even hit my inbox.
What You Can Do Today
Inspired to organize your email system? Here’s a few simple things I encourage you to do today:
1. Read Inbox Heaven by Nick Cernis for inspiration, laughs, and helpful tips to get you started.
2. Create a Gmail account, and set up all your email addresses to go to there.
3. Dedicate time to first completely empty your inbox, whether it takes 30 minutes or several evenings.
4. Stop doing nothing with your already read emails – it’s stressful just to look at a full inbox. Archive them.
5. Just start doing something. Don’t wait to launch this perfectly – approaching your inbox with at least a plan is much better than haphazardly opening it and immediately feeling overwhelmed.
What are you going to do today to improve your email reading? Share your inbox tips and tricks below.