This is a guest post from Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, a blog about simplicity and productivity.
Darren has told us that his ProBlogger email inbox can often be overwhelming, and with a couple of extremely successful blogs, running a large ad network, and multiple other projects, it isn’t hard to imagine why.
If most people have a hard time managing email, Darren would have the same problem but on a different order of magnitude.
However, from my experiences at Zen Habits, with dozens of emails coming in all the time, I’ve found that getting a handle on email and keeping an empty inbox is definitely possible. I thought I’d share my advice for Darren as a way to illustrate smart email practices for bloggers and others with a lot of email.
The following 12 rules are customized specifically for Darren, but I believe they can work for most bloggers.
Before he starts, however, I suggest he take all the emails in his inbox, create a folder (or label) called “Temp” and go through those when he gets a chance — that way he starts with a clean, fresh inbox.
1. Check only one inbox. If you get email from different blogs and projects, redirect them all to one inbox. I highly, highly recommend using Gmail (yes, even if you are on a Mac) — in my experience, it’s by far the best email tool for keeping your inbox empty. Even better than Mail.app.
2. Stop stuff at the source. The best way to deal with email is not to get it in the first place. If you get a lot of notifications from services, advertising from companies, forwarded joke emails from relatives and friends, newsletters and mailing lists … either unsubscribe, ask them to stop sending them, or create a simple filter to delete them automatically. If you are fanatical about this rule, you can eliminate at least half your emails.
3. Set policies for readers. I love reader email but after my emails from Zen Habits readers became too overwhelming, I set up a policy page that basically asks people not to email me unless they’ve exhausted a few different options first. This greatly reduced the amount of email I get. Here are my policies:
- Thank yous and questions and other comments. People email me with thank yous and questions and suggestions and stuff, so I created a couple of comment threads on my blog to allow them to post stuff that I can check periodically, instead of having that stuff go to my email.
- Guest posts. I don’t allow people to send me guest posts anymore, just because of a large backlog I have already.
- Posts from other blogs. If people want to share their posts with me, they can tag them with “for:zenhabis” in del.icio.us, and I can check those periodically and link to the best ones in my tumblelog.
- Promoting products/services/sites. Don’t send them to me. I will delete them automatically. Instead, they can buy advertising.
4. Write a FAQ. Many times emails from readers are the same questions over and over again. Similar to posting policies, you should post a Frequently Asked Questions to answer these common questions and keep them out of your inbox. If people email you without reading the FAQ first, delete them.
5. Route routine email to an assistant. This won’t work for everyone, but for Darren I would highly recommend it. I started doing it more than a month ago and it works well for me. Does this assistant handle all of your email? Not at all. Just routine stuff — responding to common questions, checking through comments, emailing people with ad rates, etc. I’ve set up some automatic filters and a second email address for my virtual assistant, and it works well. That still leaves your regular inbox with a lot of emails though.
6. Only check twice a day. Darren could easily spend all day in his inbox. He doesn’t have time for that. Instead, set two specific times (say, 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) for checking email and processing the inbox to empty.
7. Process quickly. When you get into your inbox, spend as little time as possible processing. Quickly delete as much of it as possible, read others and archive them, respond to others that will only take a couple seconds, and Star the ones that will require action. See below for more on some of these actions. Basically, start at the top of the inbox, and process each one quickly and immediately, until you get the the last one. Process to empty every time.
8. Delete often, archive the rest. Darren will probably get a lot of emails he doesn’t need to read or respond to. Delete those immediately. If in doubt, delete, as they will rarely be so important that you will regret deleting. For the rest, read or respond very quickly, and then archive.
9. Star actionable emails. For those few emails that will require longer responses or action, mark them with a Star (in Gmail — if you use another program, just put it in an Action folder) and then archive. You can then go through the Star folder when you have time to work on stuff or reply to longer emails.
10. Only reply to 5 per day. When you have time for replying to longer emails (ones that don’t require a 1 or 2 sentence reply), choose 5 for today and just do those. Leave the rest for later or delete them if you like.
11. 5 sentence emails. Limit your responses to 5 sentences. It’ll force you to just write the essential stuff, and limit the time you spend replying.
12. Let most of them go. Darren knows that most of the emails he can’t respond to will rarely come back to bite him in the butt. If you choose just the most important ones to respond to or take action on, the rest will be fine if you let them go. Just let go!