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cool extra shortcuts for doing things like unsubscribing from e-mail lists and creating task-list items from e-mails; check it out here. And speaking of task lists…
4. Don’t use your inbox as your to-do list.
I know, this is the most oft-repeated command in the whole literature of personal productivity, but that’s because it’s important. Obviously, with your newfound keyboard-shortcut superpowers, you’re going to quickly delete or archive all the e-mails that are purely informational or spammy. What will be left are the e-mails that require some kind of action. If you can complete an action in two minutes or less, do it on the spot. If you can’t, add it to a separate task list, then archive or delete the e-mail. It doesn’t matter what system you use to track your to-do lists. (I recently switched from using Apple’s Reminder app to a system of physical Post-it notes, which I attach to a portable foam-core board and also copy and categorize in Evernote using the new Post-it camera in the Evernote iOS app; but that’s a topic for another day.) The point is to get these items out of your inbox, into a more visible system that you can consult when you have time to do actual work.
5. Don’t put it off.
I recommend against using tools such as Boomerang or the “put off” feature in Mailbox to defer messages into the future. You’ve got enough people sending you e-mail already—you don’t need to be getting it from your past self as well. In fact, these tools actually increase your net cognitive load by making you think about a message twice: first as you’re figuring out when might be relevant in the future, and then again when the deferred message boomerangs back and you have to deal with it for real. Better to take care of it now, or put it on a task list.
6. To get less, give less.
Or as Polonius might put it, neither a sender nor a receiver be. One of the big curses of e-mail, in my mind, is the thread that won’t die: just when you thought you’d deleted or archived a conversation, the other party comes up with something new to say. While most people in the business world are pretty good at starting conversations, they’ve never practiced stopping them, or making them as brief as possible. The key to keeping an e-mail thread short is to avoid spamming colleagues through profligate use of cc: and bcc:; to be clear about what you need from the other participants in the conversation; to specify when no response is required (for example, by putting NNTR into an e-mail’s subject line or body); and to let a finished conversation lapse without further niceties. It may seem rude, but it’s actually kind.
My only other e-mail tip: be good to yourself. Managing e-mail is a real part of your job—it’s not the extra part that you have to complete on your own time. So try to be realistic about long it’s going to take to zero out your inbox, and budget that much time during your actual work day.
That said, if you need to spend a Saturday morning getting to inbox zero, it can be worthwhile, if only for the peace of mind. Just be ready to rejoin the battle on Monday.
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