Remember when email was fun? We used to delight in hearing those three little words, “You’ve got mail”. But nowadays, email has become one of the biggest time sucks in business.
Unless you hone your habits, email (and texting, for that matter) can consume countless hours of your business day. Here are four habits that can help you retain control of your inbox and focus more time growing your business.
1. Follow the Touch Once Rule
This rule dates back to the olden days, when the U.S. Postal Service delivered mountains of envelopes every day. The key to efficiency was to open the envelope, look at the contents, and then immediately take action. The junk mail went into the recycling bin, while the important things either got passed on to someone else or, at the very least, into the to-do bin for immediate action.
Email is no different, except that you don’t have to deal with envelopes. If a message requires action, take that action right now, forward it to the proper person or put it on your electronic calendar or to-do list. Everything else goes into your email trash bin.
2. Make “Safe” Unsubscribe Your Best Friend
This recommendation comes with a warning: done incorrectly, you could actually become buried in spam, when it only came up to your knees before you started unsubscribing. Many spammers initially take a guess at your email address. Once your unsubscribe message confirms that address, they pass it along to other spammers.
Still, using the unsubscribe link in a message from a reputable business can substantially cut down the number of email messages that you receive every day. For the rest of them, just mark them as spam to get them out of your inbox and into the junk mail folder, where they belong.
3. Stay True to Your Own Schedule
As a small business owner, you have to tread a fine line between remaining committed to your daily schedule and being responsive to customer needs. But you’re not an emergency room doctor — even business crises can wait an hour or two before gaining your time and attention.
Some people absolutely want to know first thing in the morning if anything requires immediate attention. If your curiosity is so strong that it prevents you from meeting your obligations, you may need to take a look before you start your day. Most people become more efficient, however, when they hold off on the email until later in the day.
Regardless of when you take that first peek, further email activity should be scheduled into your day. Your planned activities are just as important (probably more so) than constantly checking the mail. Limit the number of times that you check email to avoid interrupting other scheduled work. And you probably should turn off the audio and visual email notifications to avoid temptation.
4. Recognize that Not Every Message Requires a Reply
Every conversation has to end at some point and you don’t always have to get the last word. Once the back-and-forth stops being productive, it has gone on too long. So, when customer messages tell you that the problem is solved — or just say “thank you,” maybe they’ll be even more appreciative if you do not respond.
There are civil ways to stop the madness. For example, if you need to keep someone informed, just tell them that your message is for information only and no response is necessary. And if you use an auto-responder that replies to all incoming email, make sure that it politely states that you will respond only when a response is required.
While good email habits are a must, do not waste time trying to achieve perfection (aka achieving “inbox zero”). Even with good email habits, you’ll probably never completely empty your inbox — the cyber world just doesn’t work that way. Your true goal should be to avoid losing important communications while gaining back valuable time. With any luck, your email recipients will follow your example until good email habits abound across the world.