7 Quick Strategies To Get Your Email Under Control

Here's how to manage your email so it doesn't drive you insane.

“Mom. Mom? Mom!”

If you’ve done a stint as a parent or caregiver, you’re probably familiar with this frustration — the repeated interruption from young kids. But if you think about it, the dings and visual alerts from your emails are even more relentless. After all, kids grow up and stop interrupting their parents. Email just continues on.

American white-collar workers spend 4.1 hours each day checking email, according to an Adobe email survey cited by The Washington Post. That’s a startling number — equal to 20.5 hours weekly, 1,000-plus hours annually and 47,000 hours during a working life. During that time you could learn two dozen languages or hike the Appalachian Trail 100 times, noted the newspaper.

We’ve become so accustomed to checking email (not to mention Facebook, Twitter and other social media) that we respond automatically — conditioned like Pavlov’s dog.

What to do? The best advice — because most of us can’t afford to disconnect altogether — is to check email less often. But that advice is hard for most of us to follow. So consider these ideas for taming the deluge of email:

1. Unsubscribe

No, you can’t ignore messages from your boss, key team members and other critical work influencers. But do you really need to subscribe to sale alerts from your favorite retailers? Or updates on your social media activity? Ruthlessly unsubscribe, advises Monica Seeley, author of “Brilliant Email: How to Win Back Time and Increase Your Productivity,” speaking to The Huffington Post. Yes, unsubscribing takes time, but it saves time in the long run. One other idea: Establish an email account strictly for “junk” or “fun” emails and keep all alerts silent. Check that box only as time allows.

2. Install a productivity app

Newton Mail, Notion, IFTTT (If This, Then That), SaneBox and Streak, are among the apps that allow you to prioritize and filter email, automatically respond and more. You can also find a variety of apps in Other InBox. But like a human subordinates, these helpers don’t succeed without your plentiful input. “You — the user — are in control,” Mark Hurst, a consultant and the author of “Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload,” told The Huffington Post. “The human is the most important part of the system — not the latest tool, not the latest feature. And as long as people abdicate that responsibility [of email management] to the technology, they will remain stressed and overloaded and anxious.”

3. Respond smart

First, turn off audio and visual alerts for emails. Then set aside the time you will respond, said Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, speaking to Inc. That sounds easy, but how do you make sure you don’t lose business by not immediately responding to an email from an important client — or your boss? Use email tools to automatically respond to messages and tell them when to expect a response, said Kinman. An example of such a message would be: “I have left the office for the day, but will return at 9 a.m. tomorrow and will respond as soon as possible after that time.”

4. Organize

As we’ve said before, it’s a great idea to put your emails into batches such as what to reply to immediately, what to kill and what to set aside for later action. A productivity app can be helpful in compiling such batches. One caution – don’t use your email as a task list. It’s important to compile a true task list — one of a manageable size.

5. Triage

So after you respond to the urgent emails, you’ll file messages that don’t need a response and flag those that need follow up, said Marsha Egan, CEO of InboxDetox.com and author of “Inbox Detox and the Habit of Email Excellence,” told Forbes. “Create folders within your inbox, sort the emails that need action, and then set a calendar alert to remind you when to revisit any deadline-oriented messages,” Egan told Forbes. Hint: That’s where productivity apps help.

6. Don’t delete

Some keep email in their inbox for fear of losing it. The chance of losing it is minimal thanks to search features. Still, many filter it into different folders, boxes or pipelines (depending on what system you use) as a way to remain efficient. What about the pieces you don’t want? Archive them or even trash them, but don’t delete the trash, recommended Harvard Business Review.

7. Change your thinking

Think of your physical mailbox — the one in which you get your physical mail. You don’t check it 20 times a day. You don’t let the day’s mail dictate your entire schedule. And you don’t take the mail out, look at it, and return it to the box. If you develop a similar attitude to your email inbox, you’ll reduce stress and boost productivity.

Email is a fact of life, but start with these strategies to control it so it doesn’t control you.

What tricks have you learned for taming the flood of email and other electronic interruptions? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Jim Gold contributed to this post.

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