(MoneyWatch) To paraphrase Homer Simpson, email is the cause of -- and the solution to -- all of the world's problems. Managing the influx of email in your inbox every day can seem like a job unto itself. Here are a few pointers to help you take charge of your inbox and leave time in your day to get the rest of your job responsibilities accomplished.
Schedule time to deal with mail. I acknowledge that there are many jobs in which you're expected to monitor and respond to email more or less continuously through the day. But if you're not in such a role, no one thing can improve your productivity more than scheduling discrete times through the day to handle your mail. I recommend setting aside three or four 30 minute slots each day -- and indeed, block these times out on your calendar -- to deal with mail. During these windows of time, focus on email and email alone -- don't multitask. You'll clean out your inbox faster and end up with more time for other tasks throughout the day.
Handle each message only once. A huge inefficiency in the way you currently deal with mail is that you read an email, decide it's too hard to resolve and move on to the next, only to have to come back to that read message again later. On a bad day, I will end up reading the same message three or four times before I actually act on it.
Hit the snooze button on email that you can't resolve right now. So what happens if you read an email and -- through no particular fault of your own -- you can't deal with it yet? Perhaps you need additional information or it's tied to a project that hasn't completed yet. For these situations, I highly recommend hitting the snooze button on the message. There are any number of tools and services you can use which let you send an email into the future, so it leaves your inbox and comes back at some later day or time when you think you can deal with it. If you use Gmail on an iPhone, give Mailbox a try. On the PC, Boomerang services a similar purpose. And if you don't mind paying a subscription, Sanebox lets you defer email from any mail service (not just Gmail) for about $6/month.
Use canned responses. Every email reply does need to be an elegantly crafted missive worthy of Abraham Lincoln. Consider this: I used to be impressed that the CEO of a company I once worked for personally responded to every mail he got, no matter who it was from. He prided himself on his accessibility, and yet it didn't seem to cripple his ability to be the, you know, CEO. I asked him his secret once, and he told me how he did it: He had a library of about a dozen canned responses, and 80 percent of his mail could be dealt with by using one of those. Yes, some mail definitely required the personal touch, but for everything else, he sent a one- or two-line automated reply. You can do the same; if you use Outlook, for example, use AutoCorrect to set up quick responses that can be triggered by typing short phrases.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Oran Viriyincy