Master your Inbox

Many of us are slaves to our inbox, most schools have become reliant on an email culture where its normal to email the person in the office next to you rather than speak to them resulting in many of us receiving hundreds of emails a week. This article isn’t deigned to try to change this culture (that is for another day) it is designed to let you take charge. I have put together my top 5 tips to allow you to be the Master of your Inbox!

Top Tip 1 – Understand the 3 types of e-mail

There are only 3 types of email, if you have a system for dealing with each type then everything goes through a process.

E-mail Type – For Information

These are things you wish to file away for referral later. So that’s exactly what you should do, you should move it out of your inbox into an organised filing system. After all you wouldn’t keep all your physical mail you wish to keep in your mailbox (well most people don’t)

How you file it is comes down to personal preference and I would imagine that many of you have lots of folders hanging off your inbox. This is perfectly fine however I would recommend a much better system is to use OneNote, check out Tip 5 below for more details.

E-mail Type – For Action

This email requires a response, it could be that you just need to write back with a decision or some information or you have another task to do based on the contents of the email. Either way there are 3 steps:

1. Reply – Even if its a couple of words just to say you have received and will deal with it later, people appreciate a quick response more than anything. If you can give a full response which satisfies the request do so and skip to step 3.

2. Add to Jobs List – Make sure you have a process to ensure you complete the task on time. It doesn’t matter if its on your computer, your whiteboard or a notepad just make sure you have made a note to complete the task. I send the email to OneNote and either create an outlook task or with a deadline time or add an event in my calendar to work on the item – either way I get reminders to ensure I complete the task – nothing is missed.

3. Delete the email ! – I hear you cry “but what If I need it” – well if you followed step 1 then its in your sent items, if you keep old emails in both your inbox and sent items you are doubling up on storage and searching as well as cluttering your inbox.

E-mail Type – Junk

I don’t just mean spam mail, any email user should know by now that you can protect against a lot of unsolicited spam email using junk filters in your mail box. I mean anything that doesn’t fall into the first 2 types of email, these might be colleagues selling things or catch all mail to everyone entitled “for the teachers of Jimmy” – skim read them to check they are junk and delete. Don’t keep this crap in your inbox!

Top Tip 2 – Empty your Inbox every day

In most organisations there is an expectation to deal with an email within 24 hours so your goal should be to empty your inbox completely at least once a day. There is a good feeling looking at an empty inbox, you feel like you have achieved something and you can be sure no one is waiting for anything that you haven’t already got under control.

If you process your mail using the methods in my first tip, email has either been ignored, saved or a is an outstanding task in all cases the original email is removed from the inbox. Once you get into the habit you can empty an inbox of 50 emails in less than half an hour.

The hardest part is the first time, are you looking at your inbox now with 1000+ emails in it is worth putting in a few hours one day to reduce it to 0, you will get that time spent back 3 folder I guarantee!

Top Tip 3 – Work from the top down

You should read and deal with your inbox from the top down (most recent first) This may sound counter-intuitive, especially for anyone with a customer service background, common sense and fairness dictates to deal with older requests before newer ones.

Let me ask you how many times you have spent time replying to an email to find another newer one after that say “never mind sorted it” or in group emails, that the conversation has moved on and you look out of touch.

People expect email to be quick, they expect a quick response – starting at the top satisfies more people as the responses are more relevant and if you have followed the advice in tip 2 the oldest email in your inbox is form yesterday so that’s not bad customer service at all!

Top Tip 4 – Use Automation

Outlook Feature – Quick Steps

This feature of Outlook lets you create a button on your toolbar to complete a series of commands with a single click. There are lots of applications for this to help you process your email, for example you can create a Quick Step with the following commands:

ITEM 1: Reply to sender “Just to let you know I have seen you email and added it to my jobs list. I expect to be able to help you by the end of the week”

ITEM 2: Create outlook task with email as attachment and a deadline of the end of the week.

ITEM 3: Delete original email form my inbox

So when a request email comes in that i cant deal with right now I can simply click a button on my toolbar, the user gets a nice response, I get a copy of the email assigned to a task to do later and my inbox is reduced = dealt with in seconds.

Outlook Feature – Rules

Rules work very much the same way as Quick Steps, the main difference being that Quick Steps are triggered by the user, Rules are automatically triggered when certain criteria is met, for example if an email comes from a particular user or has certain words in the content etc. So for example you could automatically forward email from a certain colleague to your personal email address if its received out of office hours.

One nice use of rules that I use is for moving newsletters into a separate folder to read later. I setup a rule that looks for the word “unsubscribe” in the email (which most newsletters have) and if it finds it moves the email for me.

I don’t have the time or wish to re-invent the wheel by creating a step by step guide for how to setup Quick Steps & Rules in Outlook, now you know what they are for just Google it – its very easy!

Top Tip 5 – Use the Apps

Although O365 online is excellent, there are still far more features and links in the Apps than in the web versions. Also you have the advantage of being able to work offline when on a flight etc. I would certainly recommend using the Apps.

I have to admit that I run my personal and work life through OneNote (administratively speaking of course). I will add some guides to cool things OneNote can do for you in the future, but I thought it important to point out how well OneNote works with Outlook to allow you to easily use the Top Tips in this article.

You can move emails directly into OneNote from Outlook, this allows you to store email outside of your inbox. You can categorise and search just like outlook however you have the major advantage of being able to edit the content, remove any rubbish, move things around, combine emails from different sources into one page, highlight important parts etc.

For Example, rather than having 25 emails from different people regarding a project saved in a folder in outlook all with attachments that you cant edit without saving separately in your documents and many copies of email trails. You could put it in OneNote and you can just keep the important parts neatly in one page (delete the copies of the email trails) – and add your own notes, documents and hyperlinks to it – making it a focal point to manage the project – which can be shared back with the other stakeholders. Its a much neater, smarter way of working.

Happy to Help – Get in touch!

I hope this has been useful for you, please feel free to follow me on twitter and send me a message if you have any questions or feedback on the article, I’m happy to have a chat to help you become the master of your inbox instead of a slave to it!