[IMGCAP(1)]Like it or not, your e-mail inbox is likely the place where you spend the majority of your work time.
This would be fine except that it's unlikely e-mail time alone is the No. 1 source of value for you professionally, whether you bill hourly or not. While you and I may take pride in the fact that our average response time to e-mails is under three minutes, would our reputations be tarnished with a slightly longer response time?
Many time management and productivity sages recommend the noble goal of checking e-mail only once or twice a day—but many, me included, find it difficult to put that into practice in the "real world."
So, what are some practical steps we can take to improve our handling of e-mail; i.e., spend less time in our inboxes and more time on productive, value-added activities? Here are five best practices for Microsoft Outlook (and Gmail) that have worked well for me.
1. Keep your inbox as empty as possible
Either delete or file e-mails as soon as you open them. If they sit in your inbox, they will drive you crazy. You'll end up looking at each e-mail over and over again, thinking how you "should" get around to addressing that item. Then, if you procrastinate, it'll be the same drill next time you look at your inbox—you'll look at the same e-mail and decide whether to act or not.
Do yourself a favor: if you decide not to act immediately, file it away in a folder. Then, at a later time, you can batch-process all items in that folder.
By doing this, you'll build more momentum as you do your follow-up e-mails, because you'll be tackling items and issues that are related. This will go a long way toward preserving your sanity, because having an unofficial to-do list stacked up in your inbox creates a low level of stress that's always eating away at your sanity.
2. Use "Rules" to automatically file e-mails
I used to let every single e-mail drop directly into my inbox. What a nightmare that was. Looking back, it was a crazy practice. All of my correspondence, newsletter subscriptions, etc., came right into the same place. Yikes!
If you don't yet use Outlook's Rules and Alerts, you can find the feature under Tools > Rules and Alerts. I find the Stay Organized rules to be the most useful, where I create a rule to move an incoming message to a predetermined folder, based on the sender or subject line.
This is a great way to manage newsletter subscriptions, as it allows you to read related messages in batches, which can be a big help in managing your workflow.
(Note: The analogous feature in Gmail is Filters. You can find them under More Actions > Filter Messages Like These when you have a message open.)
Coming next: Our final three tips will discuss how to dial down the frequency in which you receive emails—both in figurative and absolute terms!
Brett Owens is chief executive and co-founder of Chrometa, a Sacramento, Calif.-based provider of time-tracking software that records activity in real time. Previously marketed to the legal community, Chrometa is branching out to accounting prospects. Gains include the ability to discover previously undocumented billable time, saving time on billing reconciliation and improving personal productivity. Brett can be reached at 916-254-0260 and firstname.lastname@example.org.