Business Ninja Skill: Email

I've had requests lately for some really specific How-I-Do-It kinds of posts. How do I organize my week? How do I automate tasks? I thought the first one I'd tackle would be How I Minimize Time Spent on Email, a.k.a. I'm An Email Ninja and You Can Be Too.

There’s a lot of advice out there on staying on top of your email. A lot of it includes mnemonics like “do, delegate, defer” and advice about folders and priority flags.

I don't use folders or priority flags or mnemonics because honestly, I'm just not organized enough. Still, I average only 22.5 minutes per business day on email (495 minutes total in the month of June). 

My "system" is really just a set of steps I take exactly once every single workday (usually first thing, unless I have a meeting or other pressing matter) so that every email I receive gets processed within one business day of being received.

Every. Single. One.

My secret? I try to avoid reading most of my email.

What I try to do instead is spend as much time in my inbox as possible, processing every single thing I can from the inbox before I even think about opening or reading any actual emails.

The steps I follow are these:

Note that any communication with current paid clients about their specific projects happens outside email for me and gets tracked as client work instead of email. I've set it up so that I use different software for corresponding with clients about paid projects so those communications.

Step one: Scan inbox to see what I can unsubscribe from.

I’m pretty ruthless about subscriptions. If I sign up for a list in order to get the coupon for free shipping, I almost always unsubscribe the next day. So here I unsubscribe and then delete the email immediately.

Step two: Scan inbox to see what I can delete without reading.

Sometimes there’ll be a list I subscribe to that I want to stay subscribed to, but the email in front of me is irrelevant. Other times it will be a notification or duplication of some kind. Delete.

Step three: Scan inbox to see what I can archive without reading.

I use email filters (sometimes called rules) to filter out most notifications that I want to archive without reading, so most of those never go to my inbox. But some of them, like sales emails, notifications of payments received, etc., I like to see those hit my inbox even though I never need to read them. I select those, mark them as read, and archive those babies without ever even opening them. 

(If you don’t already have filters set up, now is the time to set them up, starting with these “archive without reading” kinds of filters. A google search for "filters" and your email client should yield excellent instructions.)

Step four: Scan inbox for content that needs to be put on a calendar.

Once the event is on the calendar, I immediately delete or archive the email.

Step five: Scan inbox for content that needs to be put on a to-do list.

If I can do it now in less than a minute or two, then I do it, delete or archive the email, and go about my day. If I can’t do it now, then I add it to my to-do list, delete or archive the email, and go about my day.

Step six: Answer emails that need to be answered.

This is when I actual start really reading and responding to emails. I do it right now, without leaving my email and doing something else. Right now, while my inbox is super tidy and clean and it’s easy to see what I need to do. Right now, I answer every single email that needs to be answered so that I know the sender got a reply within one business day. As soon as I hit send, I archive the email (actually, I use gmail, even for my upupcreative.com and shopskipt.com email addresses, so I can use the “send and archive” button, which is my favorite button). When I answer, I try to be brief and I use canned responses (sometimes called macros) whenever I can. I have all kinds of answers at the ready so that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel - and rewrite the same email - over and over again.

Step seven: check spam quickly for anything that slipped through the cracks, then delete all spam.

The end.

I do all of this first thing each day. On Mondays it can take up to 40 minutes. After a vacation it can take an hour or more. But most days, I spend about 15 minutes total on email for the day. Last Thursday, for example, I received 80 emails and spent 17 minutes processing them all, including the time it took to reply to emails that needed replies. By the time I was done, every single email that came in had been deleted or archived.

BONUS: While I'm away

As a rule, I don't answer email on weekends, while I'm on vacation, or any other time I'm away from the studio. That said, I'll often find I have ten minutes here and there to check my email from my phone while I'm away. What I do then is focus on steps 2 and 3 (deleting or archiving anything I don't need to read - both of which are super easy on a phone) so that when I return to the studio and am ready to process my email, I'm starting out with 80 unread emails instead of 280.

So that's it. Other than using filters and canned responses, this requires no technical skill or organizational prowess. I don't tag and prioritize things. I don't mark them important or unimportant. I just process them for good and then move on.

How about you? I'd love to know if you have additional tricks or tips, or if there's another How-To that you'd like to see my tackle from my own experience. Leave a comment and let me know, yeah?