Every now and then – sometimes in response to one of my jubilant “inbox zero” tweets – people ask me for tips on how to communicate more efficiently using E-Mail as well as various social networks. For a long time I have resisted their questions or occasionally simply given people the link to the “Inbox Zero” video by Merlin Mann.
However, over the past year I gradually came to realize that while I initially started out just following the Inbox Zero paradigm in the spring of 2008, my system of dealing with E-Mail and social media interactions has evolved considerably since then.
I am not going to repeat any of the Inbox Zero principles here – for those I recommend the above-mentioned video or getting Merlin’s upcoming book on the subject – but instead will focus on what I do differently and in addition to his principles.
Clearly zero2 is still zero, so take the topic with a grain of salt. My approach to keeping my E-mail inbox cleaned up and down to zero focuses much more on prevention than just managing the incoming flow of E-mail. An E-Mail that you don’t even receive in the first place immediately translates to less work spent on dealing with it.
Get the best spam filter you can afford. Some come bundled with anti-virus and security software and those work well. Others are stand-alone products and that is fine, too. The most important thing is to configure it correctly so that all your contacts are white-listed and the spam settings are updated constantly via subscription service. If tuned correctly, a spam filter will virtually eliminate 98% of spam while yielding very little if not even zero false-positives.
Once your spam filter is running smoothly, modify the Inbox Zero rules that you are using so that the most desirable action is no longer to delete an e-mail. Instead, the most desirable action is now to mark an e-mail as junk and block the sender from ever sending you e-mail again. This sounds incredibly brutal, but just think of the countless newsletters, cartoons of the day, or other useless noise you’ve subscribed to at some point in time in the past and then think about how often you actually read them today. Instead of deleting them – which forces to delete them again and again and again week after week – unsubscribe from them if there is a legit unsubscribe-link at the bottom or mark them as junk so that the spam-filter will automatically delete them for you. The one exception is, of course, the Altova Developer Newsletter – that is the one newsletter you should indeed read every month. ☺
Whenever you are filling out a web form, placing an order, or requesting a white-paper, take great care in reading all the options and making sure to uncheck the “send me a monthly e-mail” check-box.
Don’t hesitate to use the mark e-mail as junk and block the sender function on unsolicited sales messages, out-sourcing offers to India, or uninteresting and irrelevant business-development requests. This may feel a bit impolite at first, but remember: these messages came unsolicited, so there is no need to be polite or even respond at all.
If there are annoying e-mails that you must receive as part of company-internal policies or correspondence that you cannot simply mark as junk e-mail, you may want to consider setting up a special folder for them and using a rule to automatically have those e-mails delivered into that folder. Then you simply make time once a week to read those internal e-mails and scan them for important information before you archive them.
Last, but not least, observe your own e-mail behavior and realize that a lot of the e-mail you receive probably is in response to a question you sent. In essence, you are generating your own inbound e-mail flood. Now adjust your own behavior by determining which questions can be better and more efficiently dealt with in a phone call, an IM conversation, a Skype call, or even via social networking tools, like Twitter. You will find that as a result of adjusting your outgoing e-mail practices, your inflow will adjust in a similar fashion.
By adopting these steps and following all the other best practices from Inbox Zero you can develop a habit of reducing the amount of e-mail you have to deal with and keeping your inbox empty, your stress-levels low, and your to-do list nicely organized.
Be Smart. Get a Smartphone.
The second most important productivity increasing tool is the use of a smartphone. I personally prefer to use an iPhone, 4 but it doesn’t really make a difference if you use Android, Windows Phone 7, or the iPhone. The key is to set up your e-mail account in such a way that you can not only read your e-mail on your smartphone, but also process it according to Inbox Zero principles. This means you need to be able to (a) delegate e-mail via forwarding; (b) reply to e-mail quickly; (c) archive it after reading; and (d) delete it if it wasn’t important.
If your smartphone only allows you to read your e-mail, but doesn’t allow for the above processing, it is entirely useless, because now you are wasting time on reading an e-mail which you will have to later read again. If that is the case, you may need to get a better e-mail provider, better smartphone, or just figure out how to use it properly.
In my case we use a Microsoft Exchange server as our e-mail back-end system in the office, and I use an iPhone 4 as my smartphone – and it works like a charm and lets me do all the processing I need to do.
Now why is that important? The answer is quite simple: there are uncountable minutes of “dead time” during a day that you don’t even realize you have or that you are currently wasting. Anything from waiting at a Dr.’s office to an unproductive meeting and from waiting in front of the school to pick up your kids to standing in line at the post office. There are always unused periods of 3-4 minutes each – sometimes even 5-10 minutes – that you can use for reading and processing e-mail.
The Inbox Zero video teaches you to not have Outlook (or your preferred e-mail client) open all the time and instead dedicated specific periods of time during the day for dealing with e-mail. By using a smartphone and processing e-mail during otherwise dead periods of time, you can easily reduce the duration and frequency of your e-mail processing times during your work day and thus gain more productivity.
Once you get good at this, it will also no longer be necessary for you to set up “Out of Office” notifications when you are on a business trip. Instead you will find that you can easily deal with the normal e-mail inflow by using your smartphone during the day and perhaps spending one hour per day on dedicated e-mail processing on your laptop in the morning or evening in your hotel room, during which you reply to those e-mails that cannot be answered with a simple 1-line reply from the smartphone.
We’ve already discussed that the Inbox Zero approach teaches us to not have the e-mail client running all day long so that it doesn’t interrupt our work constantly. The same is true – perhaps even more so – for social media. If you keep Facebook open in your browser the entire day, don’t be surprised if you can’t get anything done. The social life of our friends is guaranteed to always be more interesting than your current job or assignment.
I am by no means saying that social media are useless. But you can easily waste a lot of time, if you don’t deal with social media in a carefully measured approach.
My recommendation is to only open Facebook or other social media sites from your computer at home, but not use it at all from your work environment. If you have to check Facebook during the day, do it in your lunch break using your smartphone.
Last, but not least, think about your approach to social media. If you are primarily a consumer and reading what other people post, you are probably wasting a lot of time. Try a different approach and think of social media as your personal broadcasting tool to spread your ideas, amplify your blog, increase interest in your product – and you will find that a lot more productive interactions and real conversations will happen as a result.
At the same time, be careful that you are not getting sucked into over-sharing…
Becoming even more efficient
Clearly, this blog post is already way too long. Which brings me to the one problem I haven’t mastered yet in my own communication: to try to keep all e-mail, messages, blog posts, etc. short and sweet. Ideally, I would want to aim at having all my e-mail be less than five sentences. But that is really hard to do…