How to Beat the **** Out of Your Inbox!

by Chris C. Ducker · 36 comments

 

Email in Inbox

It’s probably the number one time-drain for entrepreneurs all around the world. Yet, email is about as required today as having a fax machine was in the late 80′s and early 90′s. When it comes to communication, your Inbox is where the party’s at, lets face it…

However, email – and particularly your Inbox, doesn’t have to be the pain in the ass that it is for a lot of busy business owners and 9-5 escapee-wannabe’s! It’s simply about putting systems and processes in place to make sure you don’t get sucked into email doom on a daily basis.

When I was in the process of becoming a Virtual CEO last year, I had a lot of mini-goals that I incorporated into my one-year long goal of escaping my desk on a daily basis. These mini-goals were basically monthly goals and sometimes I’d have to hit several within a one-month period to stay on track.

Rewind to January 2010

In that first month, I set out to remove myself from as many email commitments as possible. The main reason behind this decision was that if I truly wanted to become that Virtual CEO, I had a lot of work and planning ahead of me. I simply wasn’t going to be able to achieve everything I needed to, if I was stuck in front of Outlook all day!

So, I took myself out of as many ‘copy me in’ threads as possible. Everything from my HR team (except management issues), my IT team (except emergencies) and my Operations team (except for a couple of key clients). It worked. I went from spending 4 hours a day on email to around 1-2 hours, depending on the day (Monday is usually a little heavier than most for me).

Moving Email to the Cloud

Nowadays I’m cloud based, and handle all my email via the Gmail platform. This was another move I made last year, around April, which enabled me to become more mobile as a business owner. The ability to check, reply and ‘file’ email from any device I own, or any other computer for that matter, just became golden, and I never see myself going back to a one-device email set-up, such as Outlook, or Mail for the Mac.

But, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I am going to remain super-productive when it comes to battling my Inbox, does it? Of course not. So, I’ve had to put several guidelines and processes in place to make sure that happens.

My 6 Golden Email Rules

Now we get down to the focus of this post. The following guidelines; rules; processes, whatever you want to call them, are not, by any means final, nor irreplaceable, neither are they going to work for everyone out there. However, if you’re a new-age entrepreneur, traveling business owner or small online business boss, believe me – trying them out might just make your life a little easier – and productive.

One Click Rule

This is about as simple as it sounds. When an email lands in my Inbox, I open it and with one click do one of the following:

  • Reply
  • Delete
  • Archive

If you open the email and then go onto another email you’re only going to have to come back to the first one at some point. Why bother yourself? It takes time, it’s irritating and it simply doesn’t make sense to me.

Three Sentence Rule

For any of you who might have corresponded with me via email, you would have seen the following email signature when I’ve replied to you (if not, feel free to email me):

The link takes you to a page where you can find out why I answer all of my emails using no more than three sentences. The simple reason behind this is that it enables me to answer my emails properly, yet in a polite and productive manner.

I’m more of a talker than a typer anyway, and so my rule is that if I can’t give a reasonable answer to a question, or a piece of info someone needs within three sentences, then I pick up the phone. The only exception to this rule is business proposals, if need be.

Eliminate Yourself from Email Threads

This will affect some people more than others. But, if you have a lot of people working for/with you within your company set-up, then the chances are that you can probably get your number of daily emails down quite considerably, just like I did, by removing yourself from certain email threads.

Start Using a Project Management System

Using something like Basecamp to work with people on a daily basis, whether they are within your company structure, or not, enables you to cut your Inbox load down even further.

It does mean, obviously, that you’ll be handling messages, updates, etc., from another platform, so you’ll have to balance out things and see whether it will work for you. Bottom line – try it. If it works, great. If not, nothing ventured, nothing gained…

Unsubscribe from Mailing Lists

We are all guilty of this. We see a shiny eBook that we want, or a video course we want to check out. They are free – but, you need to opt-in. This sticks you on someone’s mailing list, however, which means you will get email from him or her regularly (some more than others, obviously).

My rule on this was to remove myself from all of the mailing lists I was on, except for my five favorite bloggers. It was a simple process to undertake. I simply waited for an email to arrive, figured out whether I still wanted to receive messages from the owner of the list, or not, and hit the ‘unsubscribe’ link more often, than not.

Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To-Do List

A lot of people I know make this mistake. And I mean a LOT! This is mad. Think about it – if your Inbox is also your To-Do List, then, as a busy ‘idea a minute’ entrepreneur, you will never clear your Inbox. EVER.

Just the action of leaving the message in there, regardless of what color you flag it, or what nice label you give it, goes against you and your productivity levels. Get your ‘To-Do’ items out of your Inbox and put them somewhere else.

Some ideas of ways to manage your To-Do List could be as follows:

  • A notepad
  • An iPad (as I use now. App – ‘Things‘)
  • An iPhone (or other smart phone)
  • Post-It Notes (I used to use this)
  • Index cards
  • Excel Sheets

Starting Kicking the *** Out of your Inbox, Now!

As you can see, I attack my Inbox in a number of different ways. What matters the most here, more than anything else, is that it works for me. I mean, when you go from 4 hours a day stuck in an email-jam, to an average of an hour or so, that’s killer. That’s game-changing, for ANY entrepreneur.

What are you doing to cut down email and become more productive? Let me know in the comments, below. And… ReTweet’s of this particular post are really appreciated! Thanks.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy Baker June 13, 2011 at 17:36

Lol well done Chris, very valid post for many busy entrepreneurs!!

When I started in business I was determined not to become a slave to my in box and am happy to say I have achieved this and continue to do so on a daily basis. Like you I click once and then take action there is nothing more demoralising that opening your g mail and seeing a huge long list of e mails that you then think to yourself “ahhh yes must do that” lol. Its similar to when we were once paper based and I used to hammer home to entrepreneurial clients the benefits of only handling a piece of paper ONCE!!

Can’t say I’ve ever used e mail as a to do list, but can see how some might .. don’t really get that though when there are sooo many more efficient ways of striking off tasks throughout the day :D

Oh and I adore your 3 sentence rule – THAT is what I’m working towards next, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from my comment today haa haa.

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:15

Hi Tracy

Glad you liked the post – thanks for commenting.

To_Do List’s are handled differently by people. However, I have seriously come across a TON of people using their Inbox’s as one. Madness, as I said.

Thanks for dropping by, as always.

C

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Ben June 13, 2011 at 18:34

First saw the 3 line rule in an email conversation we had a while back. It’s a great system and one I need to try more of.

My inbox is pretty well controlled but I could do with getting stricter with my click policy tbh

Great post Chris, thanks.

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:14

Hi Ben

‘click policy’, I like the sound of that. Work at it, buddy – and glad to hear that you dig the 3-sentence rule, too.

Thanks for the comment.

C

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Adam Stanecki June 13, 2011 at 19:40

Chris,

I wrote a huge article on this in one of my free courses and it never ceases to amaze me how many comments I get about it. Email is still crushing people.

As an addition to your “one click rule” I have a “four D” rule:

1. Delete with extreme prejudice

If there’s something to be done:

2. Delegate the task to someone else (where appropriate)
3. Defer the task if it’s a >2 min task (add a note in my task list)
4. Do the work if it will take less than 2 minutes

This works a treat for me.

Most problems I see stem from people thinking they need to know everything. They need a Tim Ferriss information diet and a finger itching to hit the DELETE key.

Cheers, Adam.

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:13

Adam, you’re rockin’ with this comment, bud.

Information diets, of ALL types are awesome. Thanks for the additional input, mate.

Much appreciated.

C

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SteveWyman June 13, 2011 at 20:20

Hi Chris

I use Gmail exclusively now.

I use the Importnat flag against people i work with and people i follow closely (your is marked important) the rest are not.,

This means I can flick into email and if an email is in the important box I can quickly take a look at just those emails. I typically get 100-150 emails a day from all the places i read and the people i work with. The important ones less than 20. At the end of the day I quickly use an approach similar to your to sort the remaining ones. For example i pretty much auto delete anything which is a sales pitch.

I also use multiple gmail accounts so that if im signing up for a mailing list that is probably a low priporty I use an account that ill consider low priority., Within gmail you can add accounts to your main one but still have those seperately.

I think a greater discapline and one i may move to is to use the seperate accounts and only log into the less important one every so often but I think that would be less effient.

regards

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:12

Awesome additional insights, buddy! Thanks so much.

Discipline is one thing, but focus is a different. Most entrepreneurs lack one or the other. But those that DO have both absolutely CRUSH the crap out of whatever they do…!!!

The additional Gmail account is also a good idea for the eBook downloads, etc.

Thanks again, bud.

C

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Bojan June 13, 2011 at 20:58

I turn all of my emails into actionable items. I use Gmail in conjunction with Google tasks. Google tasks is omnipresent on my Android powered phone and on iPad, through applications that are using gTasks API.

It is critical to set up your productivity and GTD ecosystem in place, for higher performance. If you feel cluttered, if you have no idea from where to start from, taking notes of what you need to do is essential activity that will clear your mind and help you get things done.

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:10

Hi Bojan

Another iPad user… Nice!

Great comment, and glad you enjoy the GTD principles. Keep rockin’, bud.

C

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Dano Manion June 13, 2011 at 22:04

I’m very simular to Bojan. The only difference is that instead of gTasks I use NirvanaHQ, which is a great web-based GTD tool. Normally how I handle emails is, Reply, Archive, or add to NirvanaHQ and archive, I rarely delete anything, I’m a digital horder I guess.

Adding it to NirvanaHQ usually entails adding it the clients project folder with a copy of the email in the description, then I assign a priority or Due date, and how long I think it’s going to take me to complete the action. I good thing to note is that you can actually copy the link of the email in gmail and go right back to it once you’ve completed your item so I respond directly back to the clients initial message without having to search for it.

Also, for my ongoing clients, I have email filters setup for them that skip my main inbox so I can focus directly on them in a ‘chunking?’ manner.

I’m a little guilty of the GTD in the email as well as I sometimes will use BoomerangGmail to send an email back at a different time because It’s for something I can do in 15 minutes or so, I just don’t have time for it now and it doesn’t really fit any of my projects in my GTD.

Great productivity post, Thanks Chris!
Dano

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:10

You’re welcome, Dano.

Filters work really well, too! Whatever works best for YOU is the most important thing. Just the fact that you’ve put this little system in place is huge. Good for you.

Thanks for the comment, and welcome to the VBL Tribe, my man!

C

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Eric June 13, 2011 at 22:34

I really like the 3 sentence rule (I’m using it now.)

For project managers, I’ve probably tried over 50, and ended up on TeamworkPM.

Better and more features than Basecamp, a responsive and active dev team… Oh, and did I mention create task from email? http://TeamworkPM.net

Thanks!
Eric

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:08

Glad to hear your utilizing the 3-sentence rule, Eric. Nice!

Thanks also for the additional resource, too. Much appreciated.

Thanks for the comment.

C

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Rob Cubbon June 14, 2011 at 01:19

Another good post, Chris, I got a three sentence email from you and I thought it was a really good and it sends a message to any potential time-wasters! On a technical note, you can still use Mac Mail and Outlook if you route your email through Google Apps for Business – 7GB of email for free and the some of the best spam protection out there!

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:08

Thanks for the great tip, Rob!

I’m happy to hear that you like the 3-sentence rule, too. The question is, however, are you doing it yourself, yet…..?!!!

C

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Rob Cubbon June 14, 2011 at 05:20

Ahem… no … not exactly. But, in my defence, I do have some stock emails that I send people (replies to people asking for work from me, replies to people asking for me to do work for them, etc.) – they save a bit of time :)

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Jeff June 14, 2011 at 01:39

I definitely like the 1 click rule. I’m guilty of coming back to emails later but it makes so much more sense to click it once and do what needs to be done. Thanks for reminding me.

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:06

You’re welcome, bud.

Put that one rule into place and it’ll make you super productive, pretty much immediately.

Let me know how it goes!

C

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Ralph@Retirement Lifestyle June 14, 2011 at 04:12

Years ago I tried to implement Merlin Mann’s mailbox zero. It worked for me for a while and then I just lapsed. The two biggies that make a difference for me is stopping the mail I don’t read from lists I don’t want to be on AND taking care of the mail in one read. Either save it or delete it but move on. Easier said than done for me.

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:04

You have to stick with ANY process if you want it to last, plain and simple.

I’m happy to hear that you tried, but sad to hear you slipped…!!!

But, you’re focus on the two main ‘issues’ are bang-on, for sure.

Thanks for the comment, bud.

C

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Mike Stankavich June 14, 2011 at 05:12

Chris, I agree with all those points. I do tend to follow the Merlin Mann Inbox Zero school of thought as well. One more tip – avoid all elaborate classification systems. If it’s too complicated, you won’t remember where you put something when you have to go back to it. You’ll end up doing a keyword search anyway. So just archive away when done, or delete as the case may be.

I use GMail and a very small list of tags to identify mails related to specific projects that I’m working on. That works quite well for me. I haven’t specifically set up the three sentences email thing, but I don’t hesitate to send off one-liner replies even to very long emails if that’s all that’s needed.

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Chris C. Ducker June 14, 2011 at 05:17

Agreed. I like the K.I.S.S. system of ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Less is, most of the time, more…

You shouldn’t hesitate to send one sentence replies to long emails. You’ve read, you’ve digested and you’ve replied. Plain and simple.

Thanks for the insights, mate.

C

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Phil Montero June 14, 2011 at 12:10

Hey buddy,

Awesome post and very timely as I have been battling the email monster hard the past few weeks. I must admit to not being very good at the one click email method you describe and I am guilty of using the Inbox as a todo list (bad Phil!).

I too started using Things and would like to see an article explaining how you use that in your workflow as your todo manager. I am using it on my Mac and my iPhone.

Thanks for the much needed kick in the ass – I am vowing to be better at minimizing email clutter and distractions.

Phil

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Chris C. Ducker June 15, 2011 at 03:18

Ah… The student becomes the master! :-)

Thanks for the comment, bud, and work hard on the email stuff over the next couple of weeks… It’ll do you good!

C

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Matthew Needham June 14, 2011 at 14:28

Ah Chris, the evils of email.

I’ve got a few more tips:

1) Use the Subject line as the Msg line eg Please Call Chris Ducker on 00 000 000 000 [EOM] – with EOM refering to end of message
2) On opening the Email I put in capitals underneath the subject line FOR INFO, FOR ACTION etc (so the recipient knows what to do with it)
3) Delete the contents of your inbox (or at least move it to an archive folder) so that you don’t waste time “catching up when you come back from holiday).

Your interview with Pat Flynn prompted me to try Project Management tools as a way to keep track of tasks with VA’s. It works much, much better than VA’s. I’ve been using Teamworkpm.net as an alternative to Basecamp. I downloaded the free programme for both, I think Teamworkpm looks a bit prettier. Looks very similar (You get two projects for free whereas I think it’s only one with Basecamp)

Worth checking out…

Cheers, buddy.

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Chris C. Ducker June 15, 2011 at 03:19

Thanks for the additional insights, Matthew. Great tips here, mate.

I’ve not heard of TeamWork before. I’m gonna check em out now!

Thanks for dropping by.

C

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Joanna Lambert June 14, 2011 at 16:08

Thanks Chris, this inspired me to do a serious, and I mean SERIOUS email inbox cleanup….I stayed up until it was done last night. (about 2am)

I am (was) one of those people to fall into ALL the traps of email hoarding (“That might be useful some day” “I’ll do it later” “I’ll star it so I read it later” etc etc), so I had over 2000, yes 2000 conversations in my gmail inbox, going back to 2006!!!.

It was like I was slashing through the forest with a machete!!! Group, label, archive…and best of all “Select all conversations..DELETE”

I now have 0, yes zero mails in my inbox!!! I can’t tell you how zen I feel.

From now on I’m using the “handle it once policy”.

Thank you for kicking my ass!

Joanna

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Dano Manion June 14, 2011 at 16:37

MST for the win! Zero does feel awesome.

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Mike Stankavich June 14, 2011 at 20:09

Whoa Joanna well done!!!! It’s a huge relief to leave behind that constant worry that there’s some overlooked item in your inbox that’s about to blow up in your face. You’re going to sleep really well tonight :)

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Chris C. Ducker June 15, 2011 at 03:23

Well done, Joanna.

I’m so happy to have been the one to make you stay up all night fixing your email set-up!

Machete, or not… You got there, and I know 100% what it feels like!!! Good for you…

Now………. Keep it up!!!

Thanks for the comment.

C

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Javier June 15, 2011 at 18:49

Great post, Chris. Thank you! I already began putting your advices into practice… so it is so much easier!

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Chris C. Ducker June 16, 2011 at 01:41

That’s so awesome.

So happy to hear that, Javier.

Keep rockin’.

C

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Brian Tomlinson June 20, 2011 at 03:20

Awesome post Chris. I’ll tell you that managing email can be the most time consuming thing possible that we do. I’ve done quite a few of the steps you suggested such as unsubscribing from blogs that we pay no attention to and I’m a big user of filters as well in gmail as this allows me to read things on my own terms and in my own time.

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Sam Kidd July 14, 2011 at 19:28

Savage post. I really need to give my inbox a good beating, although people that email me essays could also be on my list as well.

Also nice to see a few people recommending TeamworkPM , sounds like you have really intelligent readers :-)

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Chris C. Ducker July 16, 2011 at 00:37

Hi Sam

Thanks, man – appreciate the comment.

All the VBL readers are intelligent…!!!! :-)

Appreciate you dropping by – hope all is good with TeamworkPM. Keep rockin’ it.

C

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