Simplify your…. inbox

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‘Technostress’ is not a new term, but I only came across it recently when used by a colleague who is doing a study on it for her master’s thesis.

It’s easy to infer the meaning of the term but not so easy to know how to respond when, we are required – especially in our work – to interact constantly with new technologies. It’s likely that all of us experience technostress at some point in our working lives; I’d suggest that email has a role to play in this.

Email as tool not torment

Email can be a mixed blessing. Since 1 November 2016, I have received over 2500 work-related emails and managed many more in my personal account.

When I wrote about Minimalism and the workplace, I offered the following tip on managing email:

If you’re using MS Outlook, on managing email, sort by ‘subject’ so that all threads relating to a particular email clump together. You can quickly see the ‘reply all’ threads and just keep the ones that matter.

This is a great way to deal with the bulk of incoming mail. You’re then left with the things that are truly ‘work’ as opposed to things that might just be ‘noise’.

By doing this, you’re filtering to what’s essential, which makes things simpler to start with. Email then becomes a useful and efficient communication tool rather than a stressor.

To sort or not to sort? That is the question

Once I’m down to the essentials, I organise incoming emails using the ‘Categories’ feature in Outlook . It’s much easier to pick out messages of a particular type if you have colour-coded them.

Categories

I am also a committed user of folders. In Outlook, I find it’s a lot easier to retrieve a message if I’m able to narrow down what I’m looking for by topic. Gmail, which I also use, seems able to retrieve anything you search for; I find Outlook less helpful in this regard.

Both categorising and using folders take time, but I find both of these really useful.

One could argue that it’s simpler just to leave emails unsorted but if your email volumes are anything like mine, you need a system that is consistent, memorable and straightforward. That’s where we go back to the meaning of the word ‘simplification’ from my last post: the process of making something simpler or easier to do or understand. I’d argue that the approaches described above do make the management of one’s inbox much easier.

Inbox zero?

I don’t aim for ‘inbox zero’ but, most days, I leave my work with (on average) around 20-30 emails remaining in my inbox. These are my ‘work in progress’.

I review incoming email first thing in the morning, then return to it as the ‘sand’ in my day, only when the ‘rocks’ (the important things) have been dealt with.

The typing pool

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If your work setting is office-based, you may sometimes wonder if you’ve gone back in time and joined a typing pool, as everyone spends significant amounts of time intensely working away at the keyboard.

Vary this routine by picking up the phone to communicate with someone else or go and have a face-to-face conversation. It’s good for you. You can have a stretch, move your body and engage with people in a way that you can’t when you are typing at your desk.

Remember, just because you can (email) doesn’t mean you have to. In her book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington describes organisations that instigate ‘no email’ days. Could you suggest this?

Annual leave as borrowed time

I have often thought of annual leave as ‘borrowed time’ because you have to work twice as fast when you return to catch up because the emails keep on coming whilst you’re away.

What about the idea of writing the following message in your automatic reply when you are on vacation? Dare you? How would that be received within your organisation or by those with whom you work?

Thank you for your message. I will be on annual leave from X to Y dates and will have no access to email during this time. If your email remains important to you after Y date, please do resend it.

A word on apps

Apps designed to support productivity can help move work out of your inbox and into a project management tool.

There are lots of apps from which to choose and more being developed all the time. According to Statista, there were 2.8 million apps available via Google Play in March 2017 and a further 2.2 million in the Apple app store. So, how do we discern what’s useful?

I have about a dozen apps that I use regularly but I am judicious in my choices (and have previously written my essentialist approach to the social media apps I use).

A small number of websites with related apps really do help me manage work tasks and maintain my sanity. This means I can file related emails away, as I can manage tasks through the tools I use.

Some are more sophisticated than others, but I’ve settled on Producteev as my tool of choice. Although aimed at teams, it’s also ideal for individuals. I can list any number of tasks (each with sub-tasks) and am able to categorise these and set date reminders. Once scheduled, the technology does the work of remembering so I don’t have to. I also love Evernote and use Dropbox for long-term document storage.

Carve out time

If you use email in your workplace, it’s a fallacy to suggest that it isn’t ‘real work’ and that, somehow, your actual work lies outside your inbox. However, if you have sufficient autonomy over how you manage your day, carve out space for ‘time out’ to provide a counter-balance to email if you can. When you do return to it, you’ll be more likely to resume your work with a little more energy.

So, how do you manage your inbox? Have you developed any top tips that you’d like to share? Please do comment below!

Next time

In the next post, we’ll move away from discussing virtual paper to talking about real paper, as we look at simplifying our approach to the management of ‘goods in‘ of the paper variety.

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