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Email has become unmanageable. For all of us. You hear it everywhere — people talking about their snowed in inboxes, the constant distraction, their deteriorating social lives. It’s all emails fault. For some, like cyberlaw professor Lawrence Lessig, the problem has become so surmountable that they have had to declare Email Bankruptcy — an especially tantalizing solution.
But you don’t have to throw up your hands and give up. It is possible to get the situation under control with simple, low-maintenance tips and tricks. Yes, whole seminars have been devised to make people believe they need elaborate labeling or folder systems to keep tabs on their lives, but that isn’t the case. Here’s a list of ten to-dos to keep your inbox sane and safe in 2012.
1. Unsubscribe. Inbox stuffed with newsletters you don’t even remember signing up for? Do a search for “unsubscribe.” Pretty much all of them will contain that and it’s an uncommon enough word that you can set up a filter for all emails containing it. You can archive or delete them, or funnel them into a folder of just newsletters that you can browse at your leisure.
2. Tackle the bold. Many of us who can’t keep up, open our Gmail only to be confronted with a sea of bold subject lines. This can be intimidating (and not so easy on the eyes). To start chipping away at this monster, you can do searches for common keywords and phrases to isolate messages you know you can eliminate. Words like “eventbrite,” “evite,” “autoreply” or “Out of Office.” These are messages you definitely don’t need or respond to, so get rid of them.
3. For your eyes only. Getting too many bulk emails sent to distribution lists? Set up a filter so that the only messages you see in your inbox are addressed to your email address. That way you won’t waste your time wading through messages that probably aren’t relevant to you.
4. FYI. One of the most helpful tools that also lends to a clean inbox is a “reference” folder. Everyone receives emails that they don’t necessarily need to reply to, but that contain helpful or even vital information. Hotel and flight reservations fall into this category, as do instructions, or messages with useful attachments. Use a “reference” label or folder to categorize these for easy retrieval when you need them. Don’t just let them sit there just because you think you might need them at some point!
5. Make the call. Inboxes require triage systems. You may not be able to respond to every message right away, but many don’t deserve any of your time at all. This is not the time to be delicate. Mercilessly purge your inbox as you receive emails. Use those trash and archive buttons. You can hold on to messages that will take you some time to respond to, but the rest gotta go.
6. Don’t be sentimental. Some of the trickiest emails to respond to in a timely fashion are the closest to your heart. Emails from long lost acquaintances, former paramours, old professors inquiring after your new career — these are impossible to respond to in two minutes, sometimes in two months. When you receive an email that demands a deeply thoughtful reply, it’s easy to let it languish for weeks, months, years even. Every time you see it sitting there, you can feel yourself cringe ever so slightly. It’s like watching a whole relationship whither on the vine. Don’t let this happen to you. Keep in mind that people like this would rather hear from you sooner than receive the perfect response. Just do your best within the first three days of receiving it, and get it off your plate. Then it’s their turn.
7. Keep it short. For 90% of emails that don’t come from one of the senders mentioned above, it’s probably possible to respond with a single sentence. Yes, it’s true. And advisable. There’s no reason to ramble on with pleasantries. Email is a mode of communication designed for brevity. A warm sign-off should counteract any suspicion that you’re a cold fish. A “best wishes” or “all the best” perhaps. Keeping things short and to the point will save you time. And, you can be certain the people who just want to know what you think or decide on the other end will appreciate it too.
8. Delete delete delete. Gmail has tricked an entire generation of email users into thinking they don’t ever need to delete email. With limitless storage and robust search functionality, why not just leave every message you’ve ever received in your inbox? This is digital hoarding, and it has negative impacts. A brimming Gmail inbox may be searchable but it’s also been shown to make users feel less organized, more stressed out, and less in control. There’s a reason why you can breathe easier when you clear off the surface of your desk, or put all your clothes away, or clean the kitchen. The same applies to your inbox. Use that “Archive” button early and often to empty the page and start with a clean slate. You will not only feel better, you’ll find it easier to reply to the messages that actually do need your attention.
9. Filter as you go. Let’s say you’ve taken all the advice above and achieved the coveted empty inbox. Look at all that white space! Isn’t it lovely? Now how to keep it that way? Without a doubt you’ll continue to receive messages that you don’t want or need that have somehow evaded your filters. When this happens, create a new filter to get rid of them right away. Then you won’t have to deal with it ever again. Gmail makes this even easier now with the option to “filter messages like this” attached to every message.
10. Just do it. No one likes this tip because it requires some measure of self discipline, but no empty inbox list would be complete without it. If you read a message you know you can reply to in less than two minutes and it won’t kill you or ruin your relationship with the person in question, then just answer it now. Just do it, and you won’t have to worry about it again. And isn’t that what emptying your inbox is about anyway?
VentureBeat’s VB Insight team is studying email marketing tools.
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