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In one way or another, we are all slaves to email, whether that be in our home life or at work, which is why any way to improve our productivity when using email and to regain control is essential. I’ve recently been using Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero, which has existed for a few years now and is very well recommended by digital marketing agencies, although realistically it works with any email scenario.
At the heart of it, it’s about reducing your reliance on email. So instead of constantly checking your email every day throughout the day, you would do it every two hours or maybe less than that. Merlin suggests in one of his blog posts that you should do it as often as you urinate. So that’s one option.
When you check your emails, the idea is that you allocate a block of time and you go through them there and then and perform one of these five actions, which I’ll get to in a minute. Then you close your email and you get on with some real work. In the last month that I’ve tried it, I have found it really useful, and it has improved my productivity.
The way I’ve been looking at it is that when you get post at home, you go to the letterbox, you pick it up, and you deal with it. You either throw stuff away or you deal with stuff that you need to deal with or you put it on a pile to deal with later, whereas the typical approach to email is that you’re constantly checking the letterbox, you’re doing stuff, you’re putting stuff here. You leave them in various piles that don’t make any logistical sense. Inbox Zero is a lot simpler when compared to the letterbox approach that we usually use.
So let’s take a look at these five different methods that Merlin suggests. The first is to delete anything that’s nonessential or to archive things that needed to be read once, but then can be put away somewhere else for when you need them. That’s the simplest option really, and that helps cut down on a lot of clutter.
The next is to delegate. So you probably already delegate email tasks to other people, but what I do with this is I move things into a folder, called “Waiting on Someone,” when I’ve delegated a task. That way all the emails that I don’t immediately have to deal with, or where I’m waiting on someone else, don’t clog up my mind from emails that I need to action that are important. You can take that one step further with a CRM system and put the task in there and then track it from start to finish, in which case, you don’t even need the “Waiting On” or “Delegated” folder because you can track it in there.
Next we’ve got Respond. If any email can be responded to in less than two minutes or if you can complete the task and respond to the email in a very short time, you should do it there and then as part of that email time. Don’t let lots of little tasks pile up. If you can get those small tasks out of way, it really helps clear your mindset for important stuff later.
Next we’ve got Defer. Those are tasks that don’t need to be done right now. That’s really helpful, because when you scan through your email, you can know at a glance that the folder that’s called “Defer” is tasks that you need to do later, and this other folder, which is called “To Do,” are the tasks that you need to do right now or in the immediate future. It’s an excellent way to have visibility of what’s really mission-critical and what’s actually a “nice to do,” something you would like to reply to but which is going to take more time than you have right now.
It’s important that none of these folders get too big at any one time. If you have got too many things in the “To Do” folder, then clearly you need to speak to your manager and suggest that these are all the things you’ve got to do or look at other time saving techniques. Likewise, if you’ve got too many deferred tasks, you may need to consider pulling some of them forward to do sooner. Or if they’re not important at all, then simply cancel those tasks and move on to more important projects.
It’s all about time allocation. Although this won’t do any of the work for you, it only requires a really small time investment on your part. The achievement of being able to close your email and focus on a task without the annoying pop-up coming up every five seconds is fantastic.
Let’s face it. If you were in a meeting or you had a day off, you wouldn’t be checking your email all day long during those times, and the world doesn’t end during those times either. So although the concept of closing your email for long periods of time may seem quite scary, it is achievable, especially if you let your team know that, if they need to reach you urgently, they should pick up the phone, and for everything else there’s email.
As I say, I’ve been using this for a month now, and it’s really helped me to regain control of my email. Inbox Zero isn’t about just grabbing all your emails and shoving them in folders. You do still need to pay attention. But if you do it right, it can really help change the way you use email.
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