Sooner or later, it happens to every entrepreneur. With most of your communications arriving via email, your inbox can quickly become an overwhelming, stressful place.
You stop opening emails you know will require a response.
You may even dread opening your email client at all.
Soon, your inbox is littered with unread, un-acted-upon emails, many with deadlines which have already passed. You kid yourself into thinking this is some kind of “to-do” list, but in reality, you’re just avoiding having to deal with it, because you simply don’t know where to start.
Talk about stressful!
And what about those legitimate emails that need a response? Clients, potential clients, and dozens of others contact you through email, and if you don’t keep a clean inbox, sooner or later something is going to slip through the cracks, and you’ll lose a valuable opportunity. I know because this has happened to me more times than I care to admit.
A Big Sigh of Relief
Ask anyone who’s suffered from inbox overload and gone on to embrace “Inbox Zero,” and they’ll tell you how freeing it can be. Suddenly, you’re no longer a slave to your email. You don’t waste time every day searching for that one email you know you need to answer but can’t find. You don’t have to ask clients to re-send information. Best of all, you stop dreading that first onslaught of emails in the morning.
You are in control.
Your Plan of Action
Before you can get your out-of-control emails into some kind of manageable system, you have to map out a plan. Will you declare an email D-Day and simply delete everything so you can start fresh? Will you block off a few hours (or days) to carefully scan and sort your current emails? (I prefer this one. I’m too chicken to delete everything.) Or will you use your email client’s filters to automatically file what you have? (This is also a great way to start fresh without deleting everything just in case.)
All three methods work – but if you have thousands of emails in your inbox, you might just want to decide that anything before, say, last year is deleted. Let’s face it, if you haven’t answered that email by now, it’s probably no longer relevant.
If you only have a few hundred emails to get through, then using filters or a manual sort method will probably work best for you.
So let’s get started.
Start with the obvious dead weight: Advertisements, junk, marketing emails you don’t care about, and email from your mailing list subscriptions can be deleted on the spot. The same can (generally) be said about email from friends and family, notifications of comments to moderate, Facebook messages, Twitter notifications, Google notifications, and LinkedIn connection requests. Highlight them all, and click the delete button. If you use Outlook you can use the sweep function to find others like it and delete them all. It is very freeing. In Gmail I just do a search for that particular email address and it pulls all of them up. From there you can just highlight and delete.
Next, look for emails from current and prospective customers. Move them to a folder called “Respond To” or something similar, so they’re out of your way but still close at hand. You’ll deal with those later.
Finally, take a look at what’s left. Chances are there’s not much, and you can deal with them on an individual basis.
Once your inbox is clean (or at least greatly reduced) you can go back to that “Respond To” folder and begin answering, starting either with the most urgent messages or with the oldest. The important thing is not where you begin, but that you work through the entire folder. Do not let emails collect in this folder indefinitely. That will only move your problem from the inbox to another folder, when what you’re trying to do is resolve your stress, not hide it.
It’s easy to see why an overflowing inbox can be stressful for an entrepreneur. If you take some time to map out your plan for dealing with the current backlog, and then develop a solid system moving forward, you’ll be ahead of the game.
You’ve probably worked with a client or two who has a separate email address for everything. Or maybe that describes your situation now. It looks like this: Facebook@mydomain.com, your PayPal address, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org…The list goes on and on.
While on the surface that might look like a great idea, what often ends up happening is that emails get misdirected and the whole system breaks down. You buy an ebook and the seller adds your PayPal email to his or her mailing list, where you continue to receive updates and other important information. This one really hits home with me because my PayPal address is not my primary account I like to check too often. Or you receive an inquiry from a potential customer to your support@ email. When he or she turns into a client, he continues to use this email, but you send email to them from a different address on your domain now that they are a client. Again, I’m preaching to myself here.
Or even worse – you accidentally respond to someone from the wrong address, moving the entire email trail into a mailbox in which you would never think to look for it. You’ll waste hours searching for some bit of information, just because it’s in the wrong inbox. Not to mention if you send email from the wrong address and that person starts responding to both email addresses you have used. You can see how it can all go to h-e-double hockey sticks quickly.
A Better Solution
One email address. Two, at the most.
Now before you get all tangled up in how you might accomplish this feat, consider how much simpler your life would be if every email came and went from the same address. For most people, that would significantly simplify their lives.
So think about which emails get the most traffic, and which you could conceivably do away with. Rarely used addresses, or those used only for third-party notifications can simply be deleted. You’ll just need to update your notifications email at Twitter, Facebook, and other services.
Addresses that do receive email can easily be forwarded right from your hosting account, so you can collect all your email in one spot.
Gmail’s Answer to Multiple Email Addresses
But if you are like me you may not be comfortable ditching all those extra addresses just yet. It could be that you have a few businesses you run and must keep separate email addresses or you are responsible for a organization position email that you are on. If that describes you Gmail has an answer for you. Your Gmail account comes built with the ability to send and receive email from up to five other POP3 accounts. That means that you can use a single Gmail interface to collect all your mail, and you can even set it up to reply to those messages using the same email address that received them. So you won’t confuse your clients by responding to their email from giasmommy8956—@gmail.com instead of email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. This is especially helpful if you set up an email for every domain you own, but the email address itself gets very little mail. Or if you like the idea of having a PayPal address for accounting purposes, but don’t want to have to log in to yet another email server (such as WebMail). This has been a lifesaver for me to have all of my different business email addresses come into one email box instead of trying to log into different websites to retrieve my email.
Even if you do decide to go the Gmail route, it’s still a good idea to pare your emails down to the bare necessities.
When you started your business, it probably seemed like a good idea (and maybe even necessary for organization) to have lots of email addresses. Now that you’re busy, though, all those mailboxes can easily become more of a pain to deal with. And when it comes to getting your email under control, the first step is often deleting those unnecessary addresses.
How do you handle your multiple email addresses? Let me know in the comments below.
And Make Productivity Painless
Imagine logging into your email and being able to see at a glance what needs attention right now, all the information related to your current projects, and a list of items you put away to read later. How much time would that save – just because you wouldn’t have to search for that email a potential client sent last week?
A whole lot, you can be sure. Sound like a pipe dream? It isn’t. All it takes is a little setup of folders and filters (or rules, as some email clients call them) and what looks like a dream setup becomes your new reality.
Planning Your Folder Setup
First things first, every modern email system supports some kind of folder structure. In Outlook and Mac Mail, for example, you can create folders within (or outside) your main “Inbox” folder. The same is true for free email providers such as Yahoo. Gmail uses their own naming system called “labels” instead. Labels act like folders, without cluttering up the interface. A few minutes with the help files for your email provider of choice should give you all the information you need to set up folders within your account.
Your business structure and the way you prefer to work will determine how you set up your folders. For example, you might want to create a folder for each client, for each project, or nested folders for both. You might even want folders titled “Requires Action” (for emails that contain to-do items) and “Requires Response” (for emails you need to answer). I have folders for each client project. I also have folders for specific aspects of my business for example: Affiliates, Business Learning, Business Coaching, etc.
Other helpful folders might be “Read Later” for newsletters you want to read, “Buy This” for sales emails that contain products you’re considering, and “Receipts” for things you’ve already purchased.
Using Automation Rules (Filters)
Once you have your folder structure set up, it’s time to add some rules to automatically file your incoming mail. That way, you don’t have to open the same email multiple times – you only have to look at it when you’re ready to work on that project or you’re looking for something to read.
Like folders, most modern email systems offer automation rules. You can set up rules to move incoming mail to a folder, flag it for easy location, or even delete it. Rules can be based on a number of different criteria, including sender address, subject, keywords, who it was sent to, and whether or not it contains an attachment.
The easiest way to set up rules (or filters, as they’re known in Gmail) is to build each one based on a piece of email you receive. For example, if you receive an email from a client to your Gmail box, and you want to file all future emails from her to the folder you’ve created, you would simply open the email, click the “More” button, and choose “Filter messages like these.” Then just follow the prompts. All future emails that match your filter criteria will be treated the same way. Outlook (formerly Hotmail) uses the “Sweep” feature to do the same thing.
Most other email systems have similar features. Again, a few minutes with the help files will have you creating rules to handle all your incoming mail. And once you’ve got your folders and filters set up, your email inbox will be a much cleaner, less stressful place.
Do you use filters and folders in your email system? Let me know in the comments below.
It feels a little…weird, doesn’t it? The thought of letting someone else read (and maybe even respond to) your email might feel a bit like an invasion of privacy, but it might just be the thing that saves your sanity when you’re facing email overload every morning.
And you don’t have to allow your assistant to read all your email – just a few select accounts. You do have a virtual assistant don’t you? If not then that is a whole other post, but let’s assume that you do or have a secretary. Read on.
Private vs. Business Email
Before you decide to outsource your email management, it’s a good idea to separate your personal from your business accounts. Your personal email address is the one you’ll give to your friends and family, your kid’s school, your bank, and anyone else who might send you either personal or confidential information.
Your business email is the one you’ll use for your help desk, affiliate programs, and other non-personal information. This is the one you’ll give to your assistant to read and respond to, if necessary. He or she should know enough about your business to be able to respond appropriately in most cases, but also know that anything she can’t handle should be forwarded to you for a response.
Using a Help Desk
Information product sellers, online retailers, and even coaches and virtual assistants might find it useful to set up a help desk. This is a great way to filter and organize conversations, particularly as they relate to products and customer service. Not only that, but you can easily have your assistant monitor the desk, relieving you of the responsibility.
One of the most popular options is ZenDesk, which is a bargain at just $20 per year. It’s a hosted platform, meaning there is nothing to install. Plus it allows for email piping, so the sending of an email to a designated address automatically creates a ticket. ZenDesk is super simple to set up and use, and will definitely help clear up your email inbox. You can also take a look at Freshdesk or a free option like Podio.
[Tweet “You can enjoy an empty inbox by outsourcing.”]
You could also choose to set up your own help desk using one of the many free php scripts available. Like WordPress, these scripts install on your hosting account, and cost nothing to use. All of them allow you to maintain a ticket history, but some offer other features such as a FAQ page, email piping, and other goodies. Be sure to read the documentation for several before deciding. Some popular choices include osTicket and Hesk.
If you do decide to use a help desk – regardless of which one you choose – you’ll want to set up some systems for monitoring and maintaining it. At the very least, you’ll want someone to be in charge of all incoming tickets. That person is responsible for making sure that all tickets are answered in a timely manner, and that relevant information is added to the FAQ page. You may want to work out a system by which help requests are escalated to you (or a project manager) in case your help desk person isn’t able to answer, or doesn’t know how to respond to a particular request.
Digging out from under a pile of email can be tough, but if you get some help, you’ll be well on your way to an empty inbox, and that’s a great place to be.
Would you consider outsourcing your email? Let me know in the comments below.
How often do you check your email? Every hour? Every few minutes? Or is it every time that little “unread” number pops up?
If you suffer from email overload, that little number can make you crazy – and very unproductive as well. But a little discipline and a good plan can help you tame your email and regain some of your sanity to boot.
Better Email Settings for a More Productive Work Day
First, do you really need to check your email every five minutes? That’s the default setting for a lot of email clients, but that kind of instant receipt is usually unnecessary. A better idea is to set your email client to only grab email on demand, meaning if you don’t ask for your emails to be downloaded it won’t happen. If you read your email on your phone then I highly suggest that you cut off all push notifications or at the very least have it fetch new mail every 4 hours.
If you can’t (or won’t) rely on manual downloading of emails, at least turn off the “unread” notification. That way you won’t be tempted to rush off to read every email that comes in, even when you’re up to your eyeballs in a project. That means turning off the little “ding” too.
Ideally, you want to limit checking your emails to three times per day: in the morning, in the afternoon, and at the end of the day. But here’s the thing – you have to “process” those emails at the same time. You can’t let them sit around to answer later, or that defeats the whole purpose. If something is truly urgent then a phone call should be happening anyway.
[Tweet “Ideally, you want to limit checking your emails to three times per day.”]
A Systematic Approach to Email Processing
What do you do when you open your email? If you’re like most people, you browse the subjects, open the most interesting ones first, make a decision about what needs to happen with it, then move on to the next.
This is a serious waste of time because you end up opening, reading, and making decisions about the same emails again and again, every time you look at your inbox. There’s a better way.
David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done” recommends a triage approach to email that leaves your inbox empty every time you look at it. Here’s how it works.
For every email you open, immediately decide if it requires action or not. If not, either file it (if it contains information you might need later) or trash it. If the email requires action – whether it’s a to-do item for a project or simply needs an answer – you have three choices: do it now, do it later, or get someone else to do it.
If it’s going to take just a couple of minutes (i.e. you just need to write a two line response), then do it and trash the email. If it will take longer than that, add it to your to-do list for later, then trash the email. If you want someone else to do it, forward it to them.
No matter which choice you made, the email does not stay in your inbox. It’s filed, done, or added to a to-do list (yours or someone else’s).
Do that for each email you receive, every time you open your inbox, and you’ll never again have to face the clutter of an overflowing inbox.
Will it take some time and discipline to build that habit? Of course it will, but the result – no more stressing over emails, and no more wasted time searching for an email you’ve read before but failed to act on – is well worth the time it will take to re-train your brain about email.
How Do You Systemize Your Email? Let me know in the comments below.