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Email is a Necessary Evil. Here's How to Cope.

Fashion Glasses on MacBook Pro via picjumbo Last week I was doing a demo of a new product, and the founder was screensharing her entire desktop. As she was logging into her account, my eyes wandered and I couldn't help but notice another browser tab saying that there were over 60,000 emails in her Gmail.

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with email. It is a vital communication tool, and yet it prevents us from creating and doing real work that matters.

We live in our inbox, and we are addicted to checking it frequently (obsessively?) because of our Fear Of Missing Out.

What results is people regularly declaring email bankruptcy, others struggling to reach Inbox Zero, and a slew of productivity gurus saying you should only check email at certain times of the day.

I work with a small team in a fast-moving industry. I don't have the luxury to regularly disconnect from my inbox.

Email is necessary to do my work, so I've spent a lot of time researching productivity tips, trying out email management tools, and experimenting with systems to achieve email nirvana.

After everything I've read and done, there's one habit I believe everyone should adopt:

Learn to take action on every email, then archive it.

Think about every email and what kind of action you need to take, and use an army of tools to allow you to batch process requests.

Here is my approach:

  • If it's important information I need to save, I forward it into Evernote. Then I archive it.
  • If it's an article or video, I open the link and use the Pocket Chrome Extension to add it to Pocket. Then I archive it.
  • If it's an article or video I find want to share, I open the link, read it and use the Buffer Chrome Extension or Hootsuite Chrome Extension to schedule it to post on Twitter, Linkedin and/or Facebook using Buffer or Hootsuite. Then I archive it.
  • If it's something to add to our website, a new contact for our database, or some other request that someone on my team can help address, I send it into Asana, where we've created several "Task Dropboxes" which we clear at regular intervals. Then I archive it.
  • If it's a travel confirmation, I forward it into Tripit. Then I archive it.
  • If it's something I can respond to in less than 5 minutes, I respond immediately and add a note to a list of projects/tasks in Google Docs. Then I archive it.
  • If it's something I can't respond to in less than 5 minutes, I try to respond to say "on it", add a note to a list of projects/tasks in Google Docs, and tag the email as "Needs Action". Then I archive it.
  • If it's something I have responded to and I am now waiting for a response back, I add a note to a list of projects/tasks in Google Docs, and tag the email as "Waiting On Response". Then I archive it.
  • If it's something I don't need to take action on, but my colleague does, I add a note to a list of projects/tasks in Google Docs. Then I archive it.
  • If it's something I don't need to take action on, then I just archive it.

With this process, I generally end each week with under 100 emails in my inbox. But my goal isn't just to keep my inbox under a certain number of emails.

My goal is to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and maximize my efficiency when I'm in my inbox, in order to free up my time to spend it creating new products, programs, and business opportunities for Springboard and our network.

What you can do in under an hour to set up this process

The best way to develop and sustain this "process everything" habit is to take a few steps to set things up right. Here are a few recommendations that don't take long but were worth the investment of time for me.

1. Sign up for Unroll.me

Unroll.me scans your inbox for newsletters and gives you the option to unsubscribe, roll it up into a daily digest, or keep it going directly to your inbox. I allow a select few emails into my inbox, and roll the rest up into the digest. It has purified my inbox significantly.

2. Set up email filters

Some people swear by labels, and others refuse them altogether. For our team, they are critical to finding information, especially when an employee moves on from Springboard. Set up a few choice filters for emails you commonly receive, and think about the following categories:

  • Specific people you commonly receive emails from. At Springboard, we have partners that work on specific programs, so I have set up filters that send all of their emails into the tag for that program.
  • Specific words in the subject line or body of the email. If an email has the name of a program mentioned in the email, I have Gmail add a tag for that program.

3. Set up Gmail's Send and Archive

Go to your Gmail settings and on the General tab, enable the option to 'Show "Send & Archive" button in reply'.

4. Set up IFTTT triggers

Use IFTTT to set up custom email triggers that take action within other apps. Take a look at some common triggers like emailing attachments into Dropbox.

5. Set up calendar reminder to check the queues

Until it becomes a regular part of your workflow, it can be helpful to set up a simple calendar reminder with a checklist of places to remember to review (Evernote, Pocket, "Needs Action" and "Waiting On Response" tags, Asana, etc.)

6. Sign up for all tools and add the emails as contacts

You don't want to have to try and remember every forwarding email address, especially since many include a long string of letters and numbers. I've set up contacts for Evernote, Tripit, Pocket, and each of the "Task Dropboxes" in Asana and use the same formula for each of the contact names: "Add to XXXXXX".

7. Consider other email management tools

Here are a few that others use that you might want to try:

  • Use Boxer or Mailbox for a faster way to process email on mobile.
  • Use Boomerang to (1) have emails archive and then return back to the inbox after a certain time interval, and (2) to schedule emails to be sent at a future time
  • Use Followup.cc to get reminders about emails you've sent
  • Use BatchedInbox to pause new emails from hitting your inbox for a certain period of time
  • Use Sanebox for a suite of tools: reminders, snooze emails, auto-add attachments to cloud storage, auto filter (think Boomerang plus Followup.cc plus IFTTT plus Unroll.me)