Episode 5 – How I dominated my inbox – tips for maximum e-mail efficiency

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Almost every online business owner, at some point, has to tame the e-mail monster. The more our businesses grow, the more e-mails we have to deal with – and processing e-mail can turn into a mentally-draining time suck if you’re not careful.

I’ve got about 80,000 newsletter subscribers, and needless to say I get a LOT of e-mail. I thought I was decent with email because I usually didn’t fall behind – at least too far behind – yet it was still taking up time and energy that I could have been spending on other areas in my business.

So I made five changes that have drastically improved my efficiency when it comes to email, which is what I’m going to tell you about today. The first few things are some basic clean-up, and then the last few are really significant – they’re really key ways to save myself time.

For reference, I use Gmail – I have several different e-mail addresses coming in to a Gmail account – but there should be ways to implement these things even if you use a different system.

1. Stopped thinking I was “pretty good” at doing email and took more active measures to improve it

I’d been guilty of reading about and knowing most of the email efficiency best practices, yet sort of half-assing them or applying them inconsistently when it came to my own inbox.

It took me about a week to fully implement the next four steps; for a while I’d look at the emails coming in and decide how I want them each to be handled in the future.

Tip: Instead of making excuses about why you NEED xyz notification, newsletter, or e-mail to arrive in your inbox, try filtering it for a week and seeing if you really truly miss it. If so, you can always go back and remove the filter.

Here goes:

2. Unsubscribed from EVERYTHING

Take a really, really honest look at your email subscriptions and ask yourself the following question: Are any of these truly time-sensitive, meaning I will actually miss out on $$ or opportunities if I don’t read them FAST? (ex. hot stock tips for a day trader or something, I dunno).

If the answer is NO, then do one of three things:

a) Set a filter to skip inbox and file in a “Newsletter” label, to be perused once a week

b) Use a service like Unroll.me to condense your subscriptions into a single digest

c) Or follow your favorite sites with Feedly (an RSS reader) instead of an e-mail subscription.

By the way, social media notifications should never ever come to your email. You’re gonna go check those sites anyway when you’re procrastinating, so you don’t need an extra reminder in your email to go do so.

3. Filtered “reference” emails to skip inbox, mark as read

These are emails that I might want to have a copy of, but don’t need them popping up in my inbox and interrupting me. For me, they included:

  • Paypal/Amazon notifications
  • Confirmations from my bank of money transfers, etc.
  • Sales notifications (this was the hardest! I LOVE seeing sales of my product coming in… but ultimately, it’s a distraction because there’s nothing actionable I need to do based on seeing those)

4. Prioritized the rest, set up appropriate filters

Now that I’d cleared the clutter, I got down to business organizing the important messages so that I could process them more efficiently. In my case, I get email from four main sources:

  • Family/friends: these I let stay in my inbox – though you could alternatively route them to a “personal” folder if they’re a distraction while you’re working.
  • Entrepreneurship-related: Mastermind groups and entrepreneur forums/communities. Filtered these to skip inbox and go to a special “Entrepreneurship” label, which I look at once or twice a day.
  • Email from CUSTOMERS: I give my customers a special address to write to if they need help; they also have a unique contact form inside the members area that goes to the special address. These messages are filtered into a CUSTOMERS label which gets first priority in terms of fast response; I check it multiple times a day.
  • Email from SUBSCRIBERS: Leads who haven’t bought yet. Also filtered into a SUBSCRIBERS label which gets second priority; these are not urgent and I can reply at my leisure.

5. Write up your e-mail SOP and use canned responses

Decide on your policy for handling every type of e-mail you get.

By “types of e-mails” I mean you might get:

  • support requests from customers
  • general questions and requests for information
  • media inquiries
  • proposals for collaboration
  • requests for phone calls / consultations
  • praise / thank yous, or complaints/suggestions

Of course some e-mails will fall into multiple categories or outside the categories completely, but do your best to outline the major “buckets.” Then create a policy for how to handle each one. This is useful for yourself – because it frees up mental bandwidth and helps you avoid decision fatigue – AND you can also hand it off to a VA or employee.

Here’s a quick example of how creating a policy saves your mental energy – I often get e-mails from people who ask me to do them the favor of looking over their writing and correcting it (for context, I’m in the business of teaching English as a Second Language).

In the past, when each request came in I used to think about whether or not to do it – I’d look at the text, see how long it was, weigh that against how much time I had available and how generous I was feeling, consider whether the person requesting it had bought something from me or not… I was wasting time and mental resources just debating with myself about how to handle every single request.

Instead, I came up with a policy – I do NOT correct anyone’s text unless it is an assignment from one of my courses. So nowadays I don’t even have to think about it – when an e-mail asking for correction comes in, I just say “Sorry, I don’t provide that service… but here are some websites where you can get proofreading help.” – and I list the sites.

I don’t even type all that out – I insert a “canned response” (that’s a pre-written block of text) using a text expander. The one I use is called Phrase Expander; that’s for Windows… there’s one called Text Expander for Mac. What these programs do is allow you to type in an abbreviation – for example mine is noproof (all one word) – and it inserts the text you’ve pre-written and saved in the program.

This allows me to whip through my e-mails really fast. If a customer e-mails me and says they can’t log in, I type three letters and the program inserts detailed instructions on how the customer can reset their password. If someone asks me about the best way to improve their vocabulary, I just type vcb and it instantly expands into a few paragraphs of my advice on that area.

Whenever necessary I’ll take the text and customize it a bit to address the person’s specific situation, but on the whole the Phrase Expander saves me a ton of time.

6. (Still in progress) Discipline myself to batch e-mail, not check it constantly

Despite my masterful filtering system, I’m still guilty of checking the various folders a little too often – especially when I’m procrastinating a bigger task or when I get stuck during a creative process. I end up checking e-mail for a couple minutes here and there throughout the day, which makes me feel like I’m “on duty” the whole day, or like I’m tethered to my inbox.

While prepping for this podcast and mulling over the topic of e-mail, I realized that my habit of checking it constantly isn’t very healthy. So I’m doing two things:

  • installing a plugin called Inbox Pause, which will prevent new messages from coming in while I’m replying to the current messages
  • logging out of Gmail and closing the tab when I’m working on other things. This helps avoid the temptation to click over to the email tab just to check if there’s anything new. If I’m going to do e-mail, I should set a time for it and focus on it fully.

Bonus: Inspiration from e-mail efficiency pros

Here are some posts from folks who get even more e-mail than me and have awesome systems for handling it:

What’s your e-mail strategy? Do you rule your inbox, or are you up to your ears in unreplied messages?

Leave a comment and share your experience!