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Friday, May 11, 2012

How-To: Email

No Offense

I admit, the title for this post is slightly condescending but allow me to explain. Email is one of the cornerstones of computing both in our work and personal lives, yet most of us neglect to foster good habits to ensure our inbox remains user-friendly. Surprisingly there is very little time and energy involved in making sure your digital mail experience is both friendly and rewarding.

Inbox Analysis 

How many messages are in your inbox? And I am not referring to new or unread messages.
At the peak of my email neglect I had over 2000 messages in my inbox (the email address was less than 2 years old)! All of them were marked as "read" and all of them were in various stages of completion. Now I hope that you are not in a similar situation otherwise this comic is probably an accurate representation of you email habits.
If you can relate with any of this, or are just looking to improve your own management system, keep reading. There is hope.



Inbox as Recycle Bin

Email is digital mail, so let our conversation move to the tangible world. On any given day you may receive in your physical mailbox: a bill or two, a newsletter or periodical, advertising, and a personal letter (though the latter may be the most uncommon). Imagine with me if you will, that you treated you mailbox in the same fashion as your email's inbox. The bills, being important, will be opened, paid, and reinserted into the mailbox (the equivalent of being marked as "read"). The newsletter or periodical will have the headlines browsed, but as time is short it will be left for a later date. The advertising may be discarded. And the personal letter will be read, but the response will only be written if time allows.
To treat our physical mail in such a way is absurd. It would not be long before delivery would be refused (a few of you may have experienced this in the email world).  In my experience and observation, what is written above is the method in which most of us treat our inboxes. So how do we fix that?

Single-Task

Turn off the notifications. 
Being notified that there is a new email is both destructive to your current task and unnecessary. Set aside time to open, review, and respond to your email. With each new message that you open...

Complete and Delete

Do not open and read an email without taking the appropriate action.
There are only a limited number of actions that an email can implement. Response, task, inform, entertain... If you are not prepared to partake in the required/requested action, or if there is something of higher priority, do not open the email. Once you have opened an email, complete whatever is required and remove the email from your inbox. As the heading above suggests, delete it. There is no need to hoard your digital mail. If the contents of the message needs to be referred back to at a later date (or you just can fight the hoarding urge), place the email in an appropriate labeled folder. If you still have "email checking time" remaining, move on to the next most important message ensuring you complete the task.

Manage Subscription

Will this mail-out actually be read.
With almost every online service, an account is required. Typically with registering an account, regularly scheduled emails are sent. It does not take long for these "newsletters" to clutter an inbox. Decide which mail-outs are important to you (the ones you actually read not the ones you intend to read) and unsubscribe from the rest. You can always opt back in later if you miss the information.

Getting Started

Now is that really anymore work than you are currently doing? It might even allow you to be more efficient. The question now turns to: what to do with the hundreds (if not thousands) of emails collecting digital dust in your inbox...Delete Them! Start fresh. Be honest with yourself; when was the last time you needed the emails from last week, last month, last year. Okay, there may be a few that you either want or need to hang on to. Make appropriate folders and place them there. (If you still cannot bring yourself to delete anything, use the archive feature so that retrieval is possible if required.) Once your inbox is empty (quite possibly the first time since inception), diligently follow the pattern for each new message one at a time: open, read, respond, delete. 

Success

I have been using the techniques above for roughly a year. Currently my inbox has 2 messages. The only reason they are there is because action is still required with low priority. You will be surprised  how rewarding it is to open your email to an empty inbox.
Freedom.



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