How to Make Friends with your Email Inbox

This week I read about a modest proposal for eliminating email. After all, email can be time-consuming, adds extra pressure to an already stressful workplace, fragments attention, and can sometimes feel like a never-ending black hole. One friend says bluntly, “I hate email.” Some have written about taming the email monster, and others have already abandoned email in favour of texting or other forms of communicating.

But I’m still a fan of email, and not just because it’s the most consistent way for people to subscribe to this blog. For all of its downside, email can also be a fast and convenient way of communicating. When it’s too early or too late to phone my sisters, I can still send them an email with my latest news, and they can read it whenever it works for them. I can read and respond to church and writing emails at times that suit my workflow, so I don’t get interrupted during a meal or when I’m needing to concentrate on my sermon or blog post.

So rather than eliminating email, or thinking of email as a monster to be tamed, today I’m sharing my 7 ways of making friends with your email inbox.

Making_Friends_With_Your_Email_Inbox

#1 – Have more than one email address.
It might seem ironic to manage email by having multiple addresses, but I find it works well since it means that for the most part, other people do my filing for me, and I’m not overwhelmed by one huge unwieldy inbox.

So church-related emails go to my church address, writing related emails go to my writing address, family and friends use a separate address, and the millions of rewards programs I’ve joined go to a fourth address. This relieves some of the always-on pressure of email since I’m not always on to everything and everyone–I don’t generally check my church email on my day off, and by the same token I’m not distracted by my IHOP birthday reward email on church time.

There are some overlaps of course, since some people from my church respond to my writing emails, and I’m still transitioning friends from an old email address to my family and friends set-up. Email, like life in general, doesn’t always fall into neat categories, but I don’t stress about that. If a church member replies to my writing address, I’m okay with replying back from there (so please don’t stop emailing me!). Or if the church council agenda comes to my writing address, I simply forward it without reading to my church address to deal with later.

If you’re going to try this multiple email method, one additional tip–don’t give everyone all of your email addresses and expect them to figure out which one to use when. Just give them the address you want them to use, which is easiest for them and less confusing. So when I signed up at the new Choices market, I gave them just my fourth address that I want them to use, and they don’t need to know about my other ones.

#2 – Have email “office” hours.
When I taught at a local Bible college, I would have office hours set aside for seeing students, and now I try to set aside specific time for my church and writing email. I find that setting some boundaries around that email time helps me focus. So for example, I give my fourth address only sporadic “office” hours maybe once a week or even less, since those emails don’t need a lot of attention. When I’m in sermon-writing mode, I’m not distracted by another half-dozen emails about worship details that can wait until my email “office” time later in the day.

#3 – When you’ve finished with an email, move it into a separate folder.
I know people who keep thousands of emails in their inbox and use search whenever they need to find something, but I prefer a more streamlined approach, so I reserve my inbox for emails that I still need to read or respond to, and move everything else into separate folders. For my church email, I have separate folders for general church emails, our e-bulletin, and my work with the Future Directions Task Force. For my writing email, I have separate folders for each writing project like Abingdon Press, Loishelen Designs, and my different speaking engagements. For me, having a less cluttered inbox leads to less cluttered thinking.

#4 – Use priority flags or stars.
By using folders, I keep my inbox list short enough that I can usually scan what’s there, star or flag whatever needs to be answered that day, then leave the rest. Email is not an emergency. It may be convenient and widely used, but it’s not the only or always the best way to communicate, so sometimes I’ll leave an email in my inbox as a reminder to pray, or to send a card, text, Facebook message, or phone.

#5 – Use email as a writing warm-up.
Some writers treat email as an interruption, as a necessary bit of administration that isn’t “real” writing. But whether I’m writing an email or writing in my journal, whether I’m writing for my blog or a book, in each case, I’m putting words together to communicate. So for me, writing emails is actually “real” writing, and I will sometimes answer emails as a writing warm-up to get ready for writing a sermon or blog post. I tell myself it isn’t procrastination; it’s prelude.

#6 – Use auto-response.
When I’m know I’m going to be away from my church email for more than a day or two, I let people know with an auto-response so they’ll know not to expect an immediate answer. I find it also helps relieve that vague feeling that I should be checking my email even while I’m on vacation or study leave.

#7 – Don’t answer.
I once felt that I needed to answer every email, and I still feel that way about any email that’s sent to me personally. But for mass emails inviting me to the latest community fundraiser or Billy Graham event, invitations to take a restaurant survey or emails where I’m cc’d but not expected to answer, then I don’t respond unless I want to attend or have something specific to say. I figure that not only saves me time, but I’m doing the sender a favour by not cluttering their inbox with another unnecessary email. Oh, and I don’t answer any of those emails about the trip I supposedly won or my recent inheritance either.

So that’s how I’m making friends with my email inbox, and so far I think the feeling’s mutual. What about you? Do you think of email as a monster to be tamed or as a friend? What are some of your best email tips?

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8 replies

  1. I love your suggestions for organizing/making friends with my email inbox. Getting people to switch from one address to another is an odious transition, though, I think. I’ve been toying with acquiring new email addresses for some time and that’s what is stopping me. I’m careful with my email communication too. For me, they take the place of letters (my brother) and notes or memos. They are especially helpful when you are trying to organize a group and/or I don’t want to send long texts. I loathe thumbing a long text!

    • Thanks for your comment, Rosalie – to help people make the switch to a new address, I’m trying to reply only from the new address, and find that helps. And I’m with you when it comes to texting – I generally keep my texts brief, and prefer a regular keyboard for emailing longer messages.

  2. Thx, great tips April. I can identify with quite a few of them. They’ve also worked for me. Especially, #3.

    Although, I tried doing #1 for a while and it created a huge mess. I didn’t have enough of a plan before I started.

    • Thanks, Darnell – another tip that works for me is that I don’t have my email on my phone–I mean, I can use my phone’s browser and log into my email if I want, but it doesn’t pop up automatically so it’s another way that I avoid that “always on” feeling, and keep my email in my “office” time.

  3. April, thanks for sharing your tips. What a helpful post! I’m a big fan of flags. I find it handy to have color choices and I’ve assigned specific hues to certain actions. I especially appreciate the idea of viewing writing emails as a writing “warm-up.” Never thought of that one and it’s marvelous.

    • Thanks for the tip, Laurie–my email program has flags of different colours for today, tomorrow, next week, etc., but I’ve never used that feature or thought of colour coding for certain actions. But that makes a lot of sense to me, so I’ll have to think about that!

  4. I’m one of those keep-a-full-inbox-and-then-search kinds of people. 🙂 I do have folders for really important emails I want to keep, but I find that I seldom go back to them. Different brains organize and retrieve differently. For me, the fewer colors, stars, and flags, the better. As long as I can find what I want in seconds. I am amazed that this system works well for me. I make mental flags and know when I still need to respond. I love clearing the decks completely for the day.

    I also love that gmail gives us three inboxes. I keep the social and business boxes emptied every day. I archive my primary box when the numbers get huge. The really valuable box is the sent one, because that is pre-sorted to include only the messages I acted upon.

    I also affirm that all writing is practice. Good clear communication takes patience and care. Practice anywhere helps the results everywhere.

    Having said all this, I feel I should introduce you to my friend Randy: http://www.randalldean.com/ He has a successful career helping people tame their email!

    • Hi Shirley – I also love the three inboxes in gmail, but I seldom empty them completely. I deal with my primary inbox more or less daily, but tend to let my various subscriptions accumulate for reading later. Since I usually have several different projects on the go at once and at different stages, I like to see my folders for each one in my side panel–besides organizing my emails, they give me an overview of what’s happening, and an added sense of satisfaction when I move them from “in process” to “completed” 🙂 Thanks for your comment and introduction–I’m going over to Randy’s site now….