For most small business owners, email is a communication tool that is either very important or mission-critical. Email is the place where reports come in from employees, where updates from sales and purchases are routed, where client requests and customer messages flow. For those business owners gifted in the use of the written word, email is a time-saver and a force-multiplier; for those more verbal or analytic in orientation, it can be rather the opposite. Regardless, the very convenience of ubiquity of email means that the email inbox tends to become an overflowing morass of unread messages and missed opportunities hanging fire.
It doesn’t have to be that way! There are powerful tools available to help you manage your inbox as well as some fundamental but highly useful approaches to handling and organizing all that information.
One of the old slogans of the environmental movement has some applicability to your email account, and just as with our garbage, it’s the first and last words that are most relevant. You should reduce the number of messages coming into your email inbox by ruthlessly culling the sources of emails that waste your time.
These techniques will help keep the inflow of mail down to a dull roar.
It’s very easy to fall behind. When tens or hundreds of messages come in every day, it’s easy to fall into a trap of just letting them pile up “for one afternoon.” But one afternoon becomes one day becomes one week becomes “You have 18,201 unread messages” faster than you might think. Managing your email can’t be your only job, but it does have to be one of your jobs (unless you are so incredibly blessed as to have someone to do it for you—a virtual assistant, perhaps?) and if you don’t do it will snowball on you. Make time to handle it. If worst comes to worst, delete everything. The people with important messages will write again, eventually. (This should be a last resort, however, as you do not want emails from clients or prospective customers to go unread).
Every email client has its own system of folders, stars, labels, etc. and most email clients have at least rudimentary filtering and automation functionality. Take advantage of your chosen client’s features. The simple act of sorting your email automatically by general subject can greatly reduce the stress of opening your email inbox.
There are tools for email inbox management. There are SO MANY TOOLS. So many, in fact, that you could easily make your situation far worse by haphazardly implementing too many tools…but if you choose a few tools wisely you can enhance your efficiency. Here are some of the tools that are most useful.
ITTT is a personal email automation system that lets you create triggers and events based on messages from apps and devices. It isn’t limited just to email, but you can use it to do things like:
…it really can do just about anything.
Sortd is a Gmail skin that enhances the organization of your inbox, transforming your simple list of messages into a multi-column display that acts like a to-do list.
Boomerang is a tool that allows you to schedule emails to be sent at a future date—perfect if you need to remind someone to do something, but don’t want to be perceived as hassling them ahead of time, or if you need to remind YOURSELF of something! Also perfect for sending personalized emails to clients.
AwayFind allows you to get away from your desk, not miss any important messages, and yet not be driven crazy by constant phone alerts. The tool lets you define the types of messages that you do want to be notified of while you’re away—your CFO sends you the quarterly numbers: yes. Aunt Peg’s daily reminder to wear a sweater:not so much.
SaneBox prioritizes and summarizes your messages by analyzing the message headers for critical keywords. Important messages are kept, bundled up, and presented to you; unimportant stuff gets put into a special folder to be reviewed later (it’s not going to happen, Aunt Peg).
Ditch Aunt Peg and the recipe digest, use the automation features you have available to you, stay on top of things, and use the tools that are right for you. Do these things, and your inbox will be much more manageable.