Wednesday, April 28, 2010

10 Ways to Make Your E-Mail Inbox Work for You

The most common complaint I've heard from business owners over the last few years is that they feel overwhelmed by e-mails and their inbox, no matter what program they are using. At every conference, workshop, or meeting I attended, I'd see people frantically checking their mail, to the point where I'm certain they could not have heard a single word the speaker said. Not a very wise investment if you're spending money on your education and the health of your business.

I too struggled with this problem. If I was away from my desk for more then a few hours, or even for a day-long conference, I worried about catching up on e-mail and envisioned myself being up all night. I didn't yet have a smart phone (on purpose), and have held off on the iPhone for a variety of reasons, so that left me with my iBook and a prayer. Usually it was never that bad, but once I came home to over 200 new e-mails in just one day. I'm sure you can relate.

I recently won (courtesy of Mr. Pickett), a great new Palm Pre, which has helped greatly as a productivity tool and for keeping in touch on the go. But if you still want to really organize your in box for the long haul, try some of these tools that have not only worked for me, but  cut the time I spend organizing my e-mail by half.

1. Unsubscribe, with purpose. We've all read about being ruthless about your inbox and unsubscribing to all but a handful of newsletters. I tried this for a while, but it didn't work. I missed the folks I was subscribing t0, folks like freelance writing jobs, remarkablogger, writing roads, and others. So I subscribed back. However, I did recently selectively go through my subscriptions as they came in, and developed criteria for keeping the e-mail going, which in turn I have used for my own mailings. Like you, I don't want to be sold to all the time. Does the e-mail offer valuable downloads, content, or coupons? Do enjoy the writer's style and voice, or can I relate to them in some way? Do I feel like they are talking to me? If the answer is no to any of these, I unsubscribe, with purpose, so that I feel good about it, and the decision will stick.

2. Maximize social media. I use Twitter and Facebook a lot to communicate with friends and followers, and to maximize sharing and leads. If the conversation needs to be more direct, then e-mail is for that, and even so, Facebook Linked In, and Twitter, all have specific areas for direct messaging, so it's easy to keep track of your past and current conversations.

3. Use filters and labels. I love Google's filter and label feature. It's easy to add a new label and save topics that relate to that category so you can easily track conversations. You can also filter conversations so they are automatically labeled within your in box, or Archive them or direct them directly to a separate file you can come back to later, without the message even entering your in box. I use this feature for audio or video files I don't have time to view at the moment, or longer blog posts such as compilation (best of) posts, that I want to come back to later. I also created labels for any action items that I considered urgent, or certainly that needed attention within the next day or two. Labels such as: TO CALL, REPLY BACK, ACTION ITEM, TO PRINT, have helped me a lot. Some people also create README folders and set aside a day of the week to deal with it. I also create a new label whenever I have a new client, so I can easily keep track of all discussions. You can also set up a filter by SENDER, TOPIC, or other criteria.  Remember to check your labels and scroll through them often so you don't forget you created them!

4. Use Star or Asterisk Feature, but Selectively: I used to Star everything I could not get to. After a while, guess what? I had too many stars and that was so not the point. So now I only  star about 10 items a week. That way when I'm dealing anew with these e-mails, I don't have too many to sort through. This also motivates me to focus on what's really important, although there's nothing wrong with using stars for fun items, as long as you sort through them efficiently.

5. Use weekends to catch up and clear out.  I like to start every new week with a fresh inbox. I used to think that was too good to be true, but here's how I make it work. I block out some time over the weekend to deal with any e-mails I had not yet gotten to during the week. These are now almost always the 10 items I had starred previously, as mentioned in item #4, so it's a reasonable task to accomplish and helps me stay on top of things.

6. Integrated Calendars and Task Menus: I like Google's integrated calendar and task bar features, as they are easy to use and help me keep my in box clear. If you are using Google, click on the "Actions" drop down menu and select "Add to Calendar," or "Add to Tasks, " and you'll get the pop up window that walks you through the steps.

7. Use Bookmarks, Evernote, and Google Docs: I used to bookmark a lot, but when I uploaded to a faster browser, I lost my bookmarks, so I realized I needed something better.   (I remembered most of them and got them back, but still, learned my lesson.) Evernote is great for saving e-mails, graphics files, e-books and other downloads, and with a free account I've been able to save all the files I've need so far on a monthly basis. (To upload videos and a significant number of larger files, you need to upgrade to a premium account.) Evernote is also cool because it has a database feature, so as long as you tag your items well when you are uploading them, you'll be able to find them years later by just clicking on a few key words. I still use bookmarks if I think I'll be returning to a page within a few days. For all other longer-term items, for for file storage, I use Evernote. I also use Google docs for sharing and some file storage, but I prefer the upload feature on Evernote.

8. Print Some Stuff, but Be Eco: It's the eco thing to not print, and truth be told, I hardly do anymore. But there are certain kinds of documents, such as schedules, registrations, or items needed for a live presentation or report, where you do need to print out. I am very selective in what I print, but I use recycled paper and make sure it's an item I will refer back to often. Once I print the item, I either Archive it, or delete it.

9. Use a Contact Form on Your Website: A contact form is a great way for those interested in your services to reach you directly, and it also encourages users to provide a detailed query about their project needs and what they are looking for. In this way, once you get the email you'll already be starting with a good amount of information, thus saving time.

10. Don't Forget About the Phone: In this day and age of instant answers, e-mail is frequently used to replace the phone call, but that isn't always appropriate or efficient. If an e-mail takes longer then 3-4 minutes to read, it needs to be replaced by a phone call. Ask the sender to give you a call, or call yourself if it's an important matter. Also, if a topic is sensitive or fairly complex, a phone call is preferred, with an e-mail follow-up highlighting the major points with bullets or summary statements.

How do you handle your inbox? Share your time-saving tips here!

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