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 (email@example.com) and email will still flow to you at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org to register, and then filter all their annoying marketing directly to the trash afterward.