In the age of Information Overload, it seems to get harder and harder to maintain any semblance of control over the volumes of e-mail we receive. But, there’s hope, and there are strategies…let’s take a look at a few, and feel free to add your own in the comments.
Let’s start with e-mail management techniques I use and find helpful
- Mercilessly unsubscribe and filter. I have trouble ignoring an e-mail once it lands in my Inbox, so I need technology to help me prioritize. My goal: limit the Inbox to time-sensitive messages. So, as soon as I get added to a mailing list I don’t want to be on, I unsubscribe. Right then, without guilt. Perhaps more importantly, I set up filters to send non-time-sensitive e-mail to somewhere other than my Inbox. For example I don’t want to unsubscribe from my neighborhood e-mail list, or my ATA division e-mail lists, but I don’t necessarily want to read those messages the second they come in. So I set up a “skip the Inbox” filter to immediately put those e-mails in specially-labeled folders. This saves a ton of time and distractions.
- Shut off as many notifications as you can. If you’re present on social media sites, you are likely to get a lot of notifications from them: someone followed you on Twitter, someone replied to your Facebook post, someone on LinkedIn has a work anniversary, etc. These sites (especially LinkedIn, in my experience) generate so many notifications that it’s worth spending 10 minutes to dig into the Settings labyrinth and shut them off.
- Make peace with brevity. I’m a wordy person. I talk a lot, I write a lot. But between my own translation work, my teaching and consulting work and my ATA-related work, I get a ton of e-mail. I’ve forced myself to accept that a polite but very brief response (“Great! Thank you so much for letting me know.” “Wednesday at 1 PM works best for me; talk to you then.” “I’m not interested in this right now, but thanks for thinking of me!”) is OK. I’d like to say more, but this kind of response does the trick in a pinch.
- Accept that reading and answering e-mail takes a lot of your time. When I started freelancing 13 years go, “let me just clear out the Inbox before I shut down for the day” was still an option. But that option (for me, and I’m guessing for many of you) is long gone. When I do a little benchmarking to find out how long I spend on various work-related tasks, I find that I spend one to two hours reading and answering e-mail on an average day. Of course, some of this involves actually doing work over e-mail–for example critiquing a student’s resume and cover e-mail. But the point being that even on a day when I “just take care of e-mail,” that’s a good number of hours.
- Hit the low-hanging fruit first. When I open my Inbox on an average morning, I have probably 15-30 unread e-mails waiting (and that’s the time-sensitive ones that make it into my Inbox; not marketing stuff or e-newsletters). By scanning the preview lines, I can tell which ones can be knocked off with a quick response (pick a meeting time, how much do you charge to translate a marriage certificate, where is the 2018 ATA conference). So I do those first, then go back to the ones that require more thought.
- Don’t let e-mail rule you, but don’t let it get away from you either. I try not to be enslaved to my e-mail; I don’t think that someone’s going to die if they don’t get a response from me within five minutes. I have a smartphone but I don’t spend a ton of time answering e-mail when I’m not actually working. However, failing to respond to e-mail generates more e-mail (did you get my message, we’re waiting on you to schedule the meeting, should I ask another translator to work on this if you’re too busy). So in a way, letting e-mail pile up can exponentially increase the amount of time it takes to manage it.
Now let’s move on to e-mail management techniques I don’t use, but that I think are a good idea
- Only answer e-mail at set times. The top of the hour, four times a day, etc. If you work on long-deadline projects like books, this could be a great idea.
- Have totally separate work and personal e-mail addresses. Only check the work e-mail during the work day, only check personal at night and on weekends. I just find that my work and personal friends are so commingled that this doesn’t work.
- Practice a one-touch rule. Once you open an e-mail, don’t close it and let it sit there: respond to it, delete it, file it, or mark it as unread. I like to mull things over, so this doesn’t really work for me, but it’s certainly efficient.
- Create an auto-responder that eliminates the expectation of an immediate response. I recently e-mailed someone whose auto-response basically says “I’ve received your message and I’ll get back to you within the next few days. If this is really urgent, call me.” Personally I don’t have the guts to do that, but I thought it was an interesting technique!
- Purge e-mail more than a month (two months, etc.) old. Another technique I don’t have the guts for but ultimately kind of admire; if someone’s e-mail has sat in your inbox for six weeks, a) you’ll probably never respond, or b) it’s probably no longer relevant, or c) the sender probably forgot about it. Pick a date, click the tickbox next to every message older than that, and get rid of them. The blackbelt form of this would be “e-mail bankruptcy,” where you delete everything and start from zero. If you’re in really dire e-mail straits (I recently talked to someone whose Inbox contains over a thousand unread e-mails), a radical step like this is worth some thoughts.
- Have an e-mail-free portion of your day. I can’t do this in the morning because I’m already eight hours behind my French and Swiss clients, but sometimes I do it in the afternoon when most of my clients are already out of the office. Shut down your e-mail and just work for two hours, and watch how much you get done.
Readers, over to you!