Managing email overload

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If you open your inbox, what email is sitting at the very bottom, glaring at you accusingly every time you log in?

It is imperative for me to keep a clean inbox to ensure that nothing gets lost, nothing is forgotten, and none of my clients are disappointed due to sloppy administration. I strive to keep my inbox below a single page so that I can see everything in it at a glance, but that doesn’t stop a few stragglers from always loitering near the bottom, hassling me.

If you’ve done the necessary maintenance and housekeeping to eliminate spam and useless promotional newsletters, the only things coming through should hopefully be things that you actually want to read to stay on top of your industry and action items that need to be attended to. Questions from clients, invitations to network, updates from the experts that you follow, and things like that all have their place in the well-maintained inbox. But what do you find most often being ignored?

Clutter, physical and digital, is a lot like ambient noise. You usually don’t realize that it was bothering you until it’s gone, but in the meantime it takes up a deceptively large amount of mental space.  My friend Aaron Mandelbaum swears by Evernote and–both of which I have in “beta” to help me streamline communications and email clutter. Here are a few tips for email overload…

If It’s an Update from an Industry Expert…

Unsubscribe. Reading to stay on top of industry trends is often one of those non-urgent tasks that get pushed off until after all the fires have been put out. After eighteen years in business, I feel confident in telling you: you will never have all the fires put out. It’s a part of doing business, and you will never not have to prioritize your time. If you find three or four updates from a previously beloved expert pooling around the bottom of the pile, then it’s time to unsubscribe. If it were still bringing you value, you would be automatically taking the few minutes away from putting out fires in order to read it to get re-energized and inspired. If the newsletter or blog post in question isn’t doing that for you anymore, it’s time to mentally thank the writer for their previous inspiration and move on. Personally, I take the time to read all of Seth Godin’s short posts and Simon Sinek’s inspirational quotes every day, because they help me feel focused and energized. I don’t view them as an interruption but a welcomed message from a friend.

If It’s a Person Waiting on Your Response…

Apologize, and respond today. Even if the response is simply, “I apologize for my lateness. I haven’t forgotten about this and I will do X or have an answer on Y by [such and such] time.” I set deadlines for myself all the time when they aren’t required, because it forces me to deal with trivial tasks instead of leaving my contacts dangling without answers. I’ve learned over the years to guard my time preciously, and sometimes that means not jumping to fulfill requests every time somebody sends me an email with one—but I try to never leave them unacknowledged.

If It’s a To-Do List Task…

 You need to either action it, delegate it, or forget about it. Chances are, if an email has been sitting around for over a month without any action on your part, and your business is still standing, it was never that important to begin with. Sometimes I find that I’ve left links to free resources or invitations to meetup groups squandering underneath the slush pile, things that “would be nice” to do if I had the time. If I haven’t found the time after a month, I’m never going to, and it’s time to silence that ambient buzzing and let it go.



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