A while ago, I griped on Twitter about folks who complain about how much email they receive (a signifier of one’s global importance?) and triumphantly declare “inbox zero” when they have slayed the dragons of their new messages.
I have been using email since I was a bucktoothed 13-year-old hiding in his parents’ basement, hacking on electronic bulletin board systems, in the 1980s. The BBS scene was the first exposure many now 40-something nerds (including this one) had to email and other forms of electronic communication. To say that email has flowed through my life like a river, scooping up countless hours of otherwise usable time in the process, is an understatement.
But as the volume of inflow steadily grew, necessity demanded that I develop my own systems and strategies. Nowadays, like many of you, I manage most aspects of both of the businesses that I run via email. In the case of RosterBot, I have not met with either of my co-founders in person in months, although two of us live in the same city.
Instead of fleeing my email inbox, I have embraced it as the mighty tool that it is, and created strategies that significantly increase my productivity over, say, spending more time in meetings.
Turn email into your friend. Here are the nine methods I employ to maximize my productivity and manage hundreds of daily messages:
Email is about notification: This is an important philosophy. Many of us are convinced that all email needs to be responded to, and immediately. These people are enslaved by email, rather than the other way around. Email doesn’t even need to be acknowledged, and if people panic because you didn’t answer their memo informing you they were taking the day off, then you have not trained your co-workers correctly.
Try this: if a message doesn’t specifically ask for a reply, then don’t reply. Leave it in your inbox. Let it stew. My personal inbox has 12,664 messages in it¦all read. To get to inbox zero, I simply drag them to the archive folder (which contains every email I’ve read since 2000) and they’re all still searchable if I need to reference a conversation later.
Kill your BlackBerry’s buzz: If you’re like me, then you pretty much always have new email. So, what’s the point of having your phone vibrate and beep as if it’s the Second Coming every time there’s a new one? Turn off that notification and you’ll not only be less annoying to the people around you, but you’ll be freakishly better at paying attention to the people in front of you. This gets you out of the habit of treating each email like an all-points bulletin and allows you to deal with email when you have time between more important tasks, which is the way it should be. If it’s in your inbox, it’ll still be there a few hours from now.
Guard your address like Fort Knox: Since a couple of lawyers discovered spam in 1994, I have been working to obscure my email address from public view. I make sure not to publish it on my websites and on mailing lists if I can avoid it. This has the added benefit of allowing only people who have some association with you (or are good guessers) to email you.
And it makes a big difference in volume if people have to try to dig you up on Facebook, LinkedIn or elsewhere (all of which I link to through my website). Once someone has put a little effort into finding you, you know whatever they’re bringing to you is going to be good.
Filter and sort: This is the most powerful strategy. Most people don’t know this, but you can put anything you want in the space after a + sign and before the @ symbol (firstname.lastname@example.org) and email will still flow to you at email@example.com. This is enormously powerful, because with this function you can create rules to filter your mail into folders (or labels, if you use Gmail).
When I sign up for Amazon, the email address I give them is firstname.lastname@example.org, then I set up a quick rule on the mail server to drop emails to that address into my “Amazon” folder. If I go to a conference, I use email@example.com to register, and then filter all their annoying marketing directly to the trash afterward.
The idea is to get as many emails as possible that are not written to you out of your inbox and into subfolders, and sometimes to ignore them altogether. Once accomplished, your email becomes a magical medium for communicating with real humans most of the time. Note: it’s important to create these rules at the server end, usually on your email server’s web interface (unless you use Microsoft Exchange)—or the rules will be applied on only the device on which you create them.
Separate church and state: Don’t ever send email to friends and family from your work account, and keep them from doing the same. Don’t tell coworkers and partners your personal email address if you don’t have to. You might be reading and managing these emails on all the same computers, phones and software, but you should be working hard to keep them logically separate. For one of my companies, as an example, I’m not worried about long response times on email, so I access that account exclusively via my Mac.
Filter all CCs to subfolders¦and ignore: This is one part training your co-workers and one part self-discipline. So much of office politics is played out in the CC: and BCC: fields. If I’m not in the “To:” field of an email thread, you’re not including me in the discussion directly—so I’m not interested, by definition. Even if I wasn’t obstinately trying to help you organize your communication better, in more than 20 years of using email in work and academic pursuits, I have rarely read something compelling, or in need of my action, that I was CC’d on.
Use issue trackers to store threads: Especially lately, searching and unravelling threads has become difficult on the email clients I use. (Thanks, Apple.) For related tasks, projects and discussions, my coworkers and I use issue trackers designed for software development and project management. These take things out of email (apart from notifications) and put them in easy to manage, accessible, central locations on the web. Right now, my favourite issue tracker is Redmine, but you may enjoy Pivotal Tracker or Basecamp. Of course, I filter the notifications from Redmine into a special folder on my email.
Encourage team mailing lists: The Gmail team, being big fans of renaming things, calls mailing lists “groups.” Every team working on something forms a group on email. This eliminates the To: versus CC: dichotomy. Many companies create these, but employees ignore them. You need to encourage their use—and nothing speaks louder than the boss leading through action.
Move all urgent communications to SMS/iMessage/BBM: I have trained friends, enemies and coworkers to send me a text message when they really need something urgently, and I do the same.
This forces the message to be short and to the point, and it forces the sender to make extra effort. (Thus making them less likely to do so casually and mess up your dinner plans.) It forces me to make extra effort in replying, which also is excellent discipline.
By adhering to these nine simple rules and investing a little elbow grease up front, I have helped my inbox become a nirvana of productivity. Having an inbox stuffed with unread messages is nothing to be proud of—it’s a sign you’re not organizing your email well enough. While my methods require some advance time and effort and will deter those too lazy to learn about rules and filters, the dividends are exponential in putting you back in control of your communications
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Ian Bell is a Vancouver-based entrepreneur with 13 years’ experience in building and helping technology startups in the U.S. and Canada. He most recently founded Tingle and RosterBot. A former Apple Research Fellow, he worked at Cisco Systems and Telus before going rogue. He blogs about the industry at IanBell.com.
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