Despite getting less email with our recent changes, I still get a decent amount of email. Some of it needs a reply from me, some of it needs to be looked at and reviewed by me but doesn’t require a reply, and the rest of it isn’t very important at all.
I’ve written before about how I handle my email. I still think that the majority of people leave their inbox open all day long with little alerts popping up every time new mail arrives, and I still think that doing so is a very very bad thing for productivity. Unless your job is customer service, you’ve got other projects to work on that need your undivided attention, and keeping your inbox open is a constant distraction that kills your focus.
Here are my rules for email, 2010 style:
Check it as infrequently as you possibly can
I check my email once in the morning before 9 AM (that’s when we ship orders), and once in the evening at or after 5 PM. On warehouse days I check it again at noon (we ship orders again at noon), and on weekends I check it only once per day at whatever time is most convenient for me.
In my case, no important email ever goes 24 hours without a reply. On business days, most emails are answered in less than 8 hours, and all emails that fall before 5 PM get answered on the same day. That’s pretty good considering how little my inbox is open.
The only email that is more time sensitive is our website monitoring service. If our server goes down, I need to know about it ASAP. For that, I configured my email to forward a text message to my cell phone.
Use Google Apps for Business
Even if you think your mail server does everything you need, there are several advantages of moving your email hosting over to Google:
- The ability to log into Gmail from anywhere and review your email
- Gmail search, which might be the best email search I’ve used
- Gmail SPAM filtering, which might be the best SPAM filtering I’ve ever used
- Your email is up even if your server is down
- A Google IP address for your sent mail (my feeling is that a Google IP address is less likely to trigger SPAM in someone’s email folder when you send a message…)
- Powerful filtering options
- IMAP functionality
- POP3 support (I use this to access my Hotmail account that I’ve had for years. I don’t want to close the account because of how long I’ve had the address, but I also want it accessible and backed up with the rest of my email)
- You can also integrate Google Docs and other Google services into one company intranet.
You can then use your favorite IMAP client to check your mail. Especially if you use multiple computers or devices, IMAP is a must. It’s also great for when you switch computers or have a hardware failure – you can literally be back up and running in minutes, whereas POP3 backups and restores can be a pain.
Receive all of your work email in one spot
This might not apply to many people. I have probably 50 email accounts that I get mail for. Several accounts for all of our sites. A site might have an address for questions (info@), payment (payments@), me (adam@), and more. All of which are forwarded to my one adam [at] pureadapt [dot] com account.
There’s simplicity in opening one inbox. There’s also practicality in that once you have Google Apps set up and your IMAP clients set up, there’s no tweaking involved other than forwarding the new email address to your main one.
I then use Thunderbird identities to tie multiple identities to that account. For example, most people see my name as “Adam McFarland”, but if I reply to a SportsLizard email, the customer will see my name as “Adam @ SportsLizard”, if I reply to a Detailed Image email, the customer will see my name as “Adam @ Detailed Image”, and so on.
Filter, filter, and filter some more: not all email is created equal
By having all of your email in one spot, you can create this ultra-efficient tool that sorts through all of your emails and only shows you the important stuff…which was the long-winded point of this post. There are some emails that you need to see all the time. Other emails you only need to see once per week. Others you don’t need to see at all, but need to have a record of in case they need to be accessed. Gmail’s filters are powerful enough to do pretty much anything that you want them to do.
Here’s the breakdown of the types of emails I get, and how I prioritize them (ordered approximately by the magnitude that I get):
- SPAM – auto filtered into SPAM folder, reviewed once per week, deleted after review
- Cron jobs (automated processes that run on our servers) – auto filtered to skip the inbox, no answer required, saved for 1 week and then deleted
- Sales receipts for Detailed Image – auto filtered to skip the inbox, no answer required, saved permanently in folder to search
- SportsLizard Price Guide subscription emails – auto filtered to skip the inbox, reviewed once per week, saved permanently to search
- Newsletters – auto filtered to skip the inbox, reviewed once per week, deleted after review
- Emails from customers – straight to the inbox, answered immediately, saved permanently in folder based upon site
- Emails from my blog – straight to the inbox, answered within 48 hours, saved permanently in Young Entrepreneur folder
- Emails from my partners or important services that we use (banks, hosting, etc) – straight to inbox, answered immediately if necessary, saved permanently in Pure Adapt folder
There’s a VERY big different between a weekly LinkedIn update and an email from a customer who is having issues checking out. By de-cluttering my inbox, I never see the LinkedIn email come through. I don’t see it until I do my weekly newsletter review on Tuesday. But the customer email is in my inbox along with other important emails. Having 90 of my 100 emails get filtered out because I don’t need to see them, ensures that I focus on the 10 that are important. It also ensures that I don’t accidentally look past an important email because it gets accidentally deleted when I’m deleting 25 cron jobs or accidentally archived when I’m archiving 30 Detailed Image receipts.
When you do email, do email
Email is just like any other task for me. I want to get it done as quickly as possible and then move on to the next. I don’t have a million other things going on when I open my inbox. I glance quickly at each email and how much work it will involve, and then glance at the clock and determine my goal for closing Thunderbird and getting on with my day. I tend to spend between 5 minutes and 30 minutes answering email, with the average probably around 10 minutes. If all you’re focusing on is email, it really doesn’t take all that long, even if your customer replies require a little investigation.
I try to apply this rule to everything I’m doing. If I’m working on a blog post, I close everything else and just focus on the blog post. Other than music, I tend not to have anything else running. Multitasking is really inefficient – you get more done if you just rip through one single task at a time as opposed to trying to do 3 or 4 at once.
Clear the entire inbox every time
No questions asked. If something doesn’t need a reply, it goes in a folder. If it does, I reply right then and there. If I need to wait to get back to them, I still reply telling them it might be a few days before I get them an answer (a common courtesy) and then add an action item to my to do list…and then file it away in a folder. There’s almost no scenario I’ve encountered where I can’t clear my inbox immediately.
At the end of the day, not all of these techniques will work in your situation. It’s important that you have a system that really works for you. That does however mean that you actually put some thought into what will really be best for you and your business, instead of just accepting that email will distract you all day long because that’s what it does to everyone else.