Email: Keep Your Inbox at Zero
Ministry work, technologically speaking, has evolved much in recent years. It should be no surprise that people in your community will probably visit your homepage before they visit your church. To think of leveraging technology to expand God’s work is a remarkable thought. If companies like Nike, Coke, and Starbucks can utilize technology to expand their businesses, why can’t God’s people do the same?
Technology, however, may come at a cost. Any new undertaking will always involve additional work and effort. However, I think we, as God’s people, can count the cost and maximize our reach without being consumed with the change. I mention this because as a result of technology, email has become a primary form of communication. Now, email did not begin this way. Perhaps you can empathize with this . . .
To most people, email has become more of a burden than help. If a repetitive task, like email, is going to be completed efficiently, you must have a system in place. This should come as no surprise. In fact, the Bible commands it in I Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.”
I receive a fair amount of email. I just checked my email for the first time today (I’m writing this on a Saturday–typically a low day), and I currently have 26 new messages in my inbox. This is mail that I haven’t opened yet. I receive email from customers, vendors, printers, co-workers, and many others. I learned very quickly that if I want to get meaningful work accomplished, I must create a simple system to spend less time with email so I can spend more time doing things that matter!
Let me stop here and say, I have read many articles and received tons of insight on the best way to process email. Unfortunately, I have found the “best way” doesn’t exist. You may read through my setup and say, “That will never work for me!” I encourage you to then adapt the principles below to something that will work for you. Your system is the best system.
This is how I process email with purpose.
I began with completely rethinking my setup. I simply reduced the number of folders within my email account to just 7. I know people who have hundreds of folders and subfolders within their email accounts! Why? With the powerful search functionality available in most email clients, you have a Google-like search tool at your disposal to do the heavy lifting. Forget trying to remember what folder you stuck that sales quote from 2008 in!
All of my folders are labeled by the action a message receives:
Folder #1 – Inbox
For email that is unread and unprocessed *only*
Folder #2 – @Respond
For email that you can respond to immediately, but requires a response that will take longer than 5 minutes to write
Folder #3 – @Action
For email that requires additional work, research, or information before responding
Folder #4 – @Hold
For email you will want to keep on hand within the next few days (i.e. tracking information, tickets, reservations, etc.)
Folder #5 – @Waiting
For email that will require an action when the sender(s) replies to you
Folder #6 – Archive
For email that you want to save for future reference
Folder #7 – Trash
For spam, junk, and anything else you’ll never need again
By taking the first step above and simplifying the number of folders in your email account, you will be able to process your mail so much easier. Realize you don’t need to respond to all of your mail, you just need to process all of it. This is how I process . . .
Quickly go through your inbox and delete anything that doesn’t have a place in your life. Next, place any important mail in your archive folder. Remember, your archive folder is a single folder that houses all important mail that may need to be referenced at a later date (e.g. sales receipt). As I mentioned before, to quickly find a past email use the search feature instead of your valuable time. This step alone will eliminate much of the mail in your inbox.
If I find an email is pertinent to another person, I quickly forward the message to another person. Then, if necessary, I place the email in the “@waiting” folder to follow-up at a later date.
Go through your inbox and locate email that needs a response. Type out a 1-2 sentence reply as fast as you can. Personally, I leave out formal salutations, introductions, conclusions, and non-essential information (I’ll explain this later). Oftentimes, I don’t even sign my name. I no longer treat email the way I treat postal mail! And, by doing so, I have saved much time.
It’s okay to return to mail that needs additional time, but don’t allow this mail to clog your inbox. Have a specific place you can go back to. If email needs additional information before responding, put the message in the “@waiting” folder. If a response will take too long to respond to, put the message in the “@respond” folder. The goal is then to set aside time to process all of this time consuming email in one big chunk rather than breaking up a productive day to answer intermittent mail.
Now this last step is the culprit of overflowing inboxes. If there is a task within an email you can do now . . . *do it*! If you can’t do it now, create an actionable item in your task manager of choice. Your inbox should only be for mail that you haven’t read yet! I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep my bills in my mailbox until they need to be paid. If you keep your inbox tidy, you will respect it more!
Now that I’ve detailed how I setup and process my mail, here are some practical tips that I have found make processing even faster . . .
Disable auto-check for new mail. A surprising number of people have their email set to check for new mail every minute! During an 8-hour workday that is 480 potential interruptions! Why do we do this?!? I challenge you to go through your emails from the last two weeks and see how many required a 60-second response. My computer and phone is set to check for new mail every hour.
Email Dashes. Group your email in chunks. I do my best to process my email work into hourly “dashes” of 10 minutes. In other words, after new email comes in at the top of the hour, I attempt to clear out my inbox in the first 10 minutes of the next hour.
Don’t check your email at the beginning of your day. The direction of your day is often based on your first accomplished task! You never know what may be hidden in that inbox that will set the course of your day. Get your day off to a great start by accomplishing something of purpose first.
When in doubt, call. I generally take so much time to construct an elaborate, perfectly worded email when oftentimes picking up a phone and calling will save not only time, but potential confusion to the reader. Save time and headaches with a phone call
Communicate “action steps” first, not last. People will always focus on the first thing they read. Forget the introductions and make sure what you are asking for is front and center if you want it to be noticed.
Number your questions. By separating and numbering your questions, you are much more likely to receive all the answers you need.
Make your desired response clear. Don’t make the reader guess what the intention of your email is. When I send an email, I don’t want the response to be another clarifying question. That is not just wasting my time, but others! If you are looking for a specific response make it clear.
Include deadlines. If you need a response by 2:00pm tomorrow, say that in the email. If you don’t include a due date, your response will be delivered whenever it is convenient for the recipient.
Use “FYI” for emails that have no actionable information. A simple FYI signifies that no other action or response is needed. I like getting these because I can quickly hit the “delete key” once the info is processed.
Tell them you’ll get to it later. If you can’t get to that important email today, no worries. Simply send a 15-second response, “I received your email. I will get a response to you by _____________.” Then, you will not keep people guessing.
Use expressive subject lines. Just like newspaper articles, the ones with catchy headlines get read first. Be creative and you will have your emails read and responded to faster than others!
Eliminate unnecessary responses. I don’t waste time with one word responses. Best example. . . “Thank you” and “You’re welcome.” Now don’t get me wrong, I am all about showing gratitude. But that type of email is simply wasting time. If someone assisted you in a major way, handwrite a thank you note instead of replying to an email with a two-word response, “Thank you.” Save your time and their time.
With the major influx of email, save yourself time by putting a plan in place. Then, do your best to work your plan. Let me know if you have any questions, suggestions, or tips. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org