Are you old enough to remember when the Internet was new? When we were just starting to use dial-up connections?

The last place I was employed before I set up my business 15 years ago had just one computer with an internet connection. This was in an office of about 15 people. I used to sneak onto it to email a friend in Australia, hoping that no-one would look over my shoulder and see I wasn’t using it for business.

How times have changed. I can’t imagine running my business without not just a broadband connection to my office, but wi-fi through my house and a smartphone in my pocket whenever I’m away from my desk.

This was brought back to me forcefully a couple of months ago when my smartphone had to be sent in for a repair, leaving me with a basic phone lent to me by my provider. No email on the move.

I’d like to tell you that I had a blissful, chilled-out time, free from the pressure constantly to be checking-checking-checking email, Facebook Twitter…

Each time I returned to my desk after an absence of several hours though, I was reminded why I find a smartphone so essential.

Dozens of combined business and personal emails to process. Shudder. But…

…it could have been so much worse….

…if I wasn’t so meticulous about setting up my email client to minimise the amount I have to do.

Here are my tips for decluttering your inbox to save time and stress

1.   Don’t just delete, unsubscribe

Faced with an inbox of hundreds of unread mails, it’s tempting to ‘Delete. Delete. Delete’ but…

…are you tackling the symptom rather than the cause?

Each time you go to delete an email without even reading it, consider…could you have prevented this email arriving in the first place?

Unsubscribe from mailing lists you’re not interested in. It takes micro-seconds and you’ll never have to deal with mails from them again.

Leave LinkedIn Groups you no longer find useful. Consider resetting your preferences for LinkedIn Groups and other online discussion groups to weekly rather than daily updates (or just check them occasionally on the website).

Turn off notifications that you don’t need to receive. I’ve turned Twitter notifications off relying instead on regularly checking Twitter itself. I find Twitter’s notifications unreliable anyway: sometimes it tells me someone’s mentioned me, sometimes it doesn’t.

The amount of time it takes to delete an unwanted, unread email is small yet the stress induced by confronting a bulging inbox is disproportionately large. So take the time to unsubscribe and you’ll save more than the time required to delete.

2.   Filter

Set up mail filters to sort your emails before you even look at them.

I filter Offer messages from Freegle and Freecycle into one folder and Wanted messages into another. (And I filter Received and Taken messages from Freegle/Freecycle straight into my Trash folder).

I have sub-folders for LinkedIn messages, Google Alerts, the automatic backup of my blog that I receive once a week…

Filtering these messages into sub-folders automatically sorts them so that I can go through all messages relating to a specific thing at the same time. It doesn’t take long to scan my Freecycle messages and then delete them when they’re all in one folder. Some, such as my backup emails, I don’t even need to read (so my mail rule also marks them as read as soon as they arrive).

3.   Archive

Now opinions differ about this. Some people say that, since you can easily search your inbox for any email, it’s not worth your time filing messages once you’ve dealt with them.

Personally, I find it stressful to see unread emails piling on top of read mails. And I find it quicker and easier to locate archived mails in folders than by searching.

So, whenever I check email, I file every message, leaving me with an empty inbox.

Don’t use your inbox as a ‘to do’ list. Don’t leave a read mail in your inbox to remind you to take action. Schedule the action and file the email. That way you won’t get a heart-sinking reminder that there’s something you’re procrastinating about every time you check your inbox. You won’t get overwhelmed by a sense that there’s loads you ‘should’ be doing that you’re not getting round to.

Plus you won’t ‘lose’ emails that slip off your radar as more arrive on top of them.

I’ve created a directory structure that divides personal and business mail, groups personal emails by who they’re from, and groups business mails according to the client or activity to which they relate. (Plus I’ve got a bucket folder for business emails I want to keep that don’t fit into any of my file categories).

I’ve also got a folder for mails I need to keep temporarily, such as confirmation that I’ve got a place at an event. Every now and then, I go through this folder and delete the mails that I no longer need. I don’t worry too much about it though. It doesn’t matter what old, redundant emails are in it because they’re not cluttering up my workspace, i.e. my inbox. I don’t see them most of the time and, when I do, it’s usually a recent mail I’m searching for.

4.   Don’t be part of the problem

Before sending an email, consider whether it would be better to pick up the phone. It’s often quicker and easier to resolve something by phone or face-to-face than through an email exchange. Just because someone’s emailed you doesn’t mean you have to respond the same way.

Don’t use email to avoid a difficult conversation. It’ll probably make things worse anyway since email lacks the nuances of vocal communication.

One of the causes of the deluge of emails we each receive is the ease of copying in and replying to all. There’s a temptation to copy in anyone and everyone to cover your back. Chances are most of your recipients aren’t reading your mail anyway though. Consider who really needs to receive the information.

Summarise long discussions, especially if you’re copying in someone new. Instead of forwarding a message string, forcing your recipients to scroll through multiple messages to understand what’s under discussion, could you summarise the key points?

The result of being conscientious about applying these simple approaches is that I have fewer mails to process, I can easily find any mail I need to access and, most importantly, my stress levels are lower!

I invite you to apply my recommendations and post below about the results you notice.



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