Too Much of a Good Thing
You check it at the office and at home, you check it in the morning, in the evening, during dinner, and even in the middle of the night. In the old desktop days, email was a curiosity, but in the era of the smartphone, it's a necessity and more, it is one of the basic facts of business life.
When you're self-employed, you can start to feel like checking email is your job and real work is something you only get around to once your inbox has been sifted, sorted, and emptied. The problem is that the emails keep piling up. They fall from the digital sky like raindrops, one after another after another, and unless you want to drown you need to find a way to keep your inbox tidy.
3 Steps to a Better Inbox
1. Be Proactive: Follow the two-minute rule. If you can respond to an email in less than two minutes, then it is always best to respond immediately. Do it, delete it, forget it. Of all the surefire tips for keeping your inbox clutter-free, this is the most difficult, but the most rewarding. There are thousands of reasons, good and bed, for putting off responding to an email, but if you can make a habit of writing concise, simple responses right away you will save yourself a lot of time and hassle down the road.
When you're self-employed, you can start to feel like checking email is your job and real work is something you only get around to once your inbox has been emptied.
One only hidden danger: the Serial Emailer! The SE eats, breathes, and sleeps email, and Serial Emailers are always on the lookout for fellow-travelers. You may inadvertently encourage an SE by responding too quickly, in which case you risk being sucked into an endless, pointless back-and-forth. The best protection against SE's is a crisp, professional tone. Don't engage in banter and don't bring up anything personal. As politely as possible, let the SE know that you consider your business with them finished. Eventually, they will find another correspondent to latch on to.
2. Delete, Delete, Delete
Too many solopreneurs are afraid of the “delete” key. Why? If you're buried to your neck in emails, then this little square of plastic is your best friend. Begin by deleting every single listserv, newsletter, and flier in your inbox, or at the very least label them and place them in a separate folder. You can set your email server to begin auto-archiving solicitations and newsletters, which not only clutter-up your inbox, but act as tempting bait every time you're looking for an excuse to procrastinate.
Also, delete or archive any emails that you've already responded to. When you receive a new message, the email thread will reappear in your inbox, but in the meantime you can make space, and give yourself a little breathing room, by putting them away in a digital drawer. Keeping old email threads in your inbox makes it more difficult to find and respond to new emails.
3. Make Email a To-Do Task
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by email when you check it every ten minutes. There is no need to fret ten times a day about an email that requires more attention. Make answering important emails an item on your to-do list, otherwise email will become your to-do list. Flag and sort emails that you can't answer in two minutes and dedicate an hour every day to focusing exclusively on responding to the most important and pressing messages.
One of the very insidious hazards of email is that constant access to our inboxes has trained us to always be doing something else—driving, eating, talking on the phone—while we check and respond to our messages. Make email a independent task and you will become a much more efficient responder.