Like many things that start off as a force for good in our lives, e-mail can very swiftly become a stressful burden. If you’re an established MUA, managing booking enquiries and client questions can be a huge portion of your working week. For example, if you receive even just 40 work related emails a week, if you spend on average only 5 minutes per email reading and responding, that’s just under 3.5 hours at the computer.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, most people probably clock up another hour a week just checking emails on their phone (guilty as charged).
Okay, I admit, I often lapse into bad email practice. But there are ways to manage your email effectively – to control it and not let it control you.
Step 1 – Get the right tool for the job
If you have your own website domain, then like many MUAs you may have opted to use a personalised domain address (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org) as your business email. Often these are set this up at the same time as the website hosting through the same company. For example, GoDaddy, a popular website hosting service offers bundled email for $5 (~£3) a month.
Unless you’re setting up and managing webpages for a living however, you might not be aware that a personalised email account can be hosted by any company of your choosing and not just the hosting company. This being the case, our first choice is a Gmail business account. This is no more expensive, costing $5 a month, but comes with all the features of Gmail that have made it the world’s most popular email service provider – large inbox size, great searching and integration with Google Calendar and other Google services.
Most importantly for Ashley, our MUA in residence, is the reassurance that she’s not going to lose anything.
In the start of the year, just as my wedding season was well and truly underway, my laptop was reformatted. I naively thought my emails were backed up on my web server but they weren’t!! All of my client information I had booked for the new wedding season the year before, had been lost. I had all of my booking forms, email addresses, contact details lost forever. This is when I realised I had made a massive mistake in assuming my online account was a full proof way to hold important information. I promptly switched to Google because I had the ability to search and save everything automatically and would be able to access old emails from as far back as I can remember. Its been perfect!
Step 2 – Get un-subscribed
If even a small proportion of your time is spent screening spam or unwanted emails in your inbox that’s too much. Before you start sorting out the messages you want to be handling it’s well worth dealing with the ones you don’t – permanently.
One great way to do this is Unroll.me. By simply inputting your email address (it’s compatible with many email providers – Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, iCloud etc.) it will scan your inbox and present you with a list of mailing lists you’re subscribed to. You can then scroll down and select those you no longer wish to receive emails from. Further to this, Unroll.me will also allow you to compile all the emails that you do want to subscribe to into a simple daily digest called a RollUp, which will allow you to read and deal with these all in one go.
Hopefully your inbox is already feeling tidier!
Step 3 – Make sure you’re not getting spammed
As an MUA you want to be as accessible as possible, whether through phone, email, social media or other. Accessibility to genuinely interested clients however doesn’t have to mean leaving yourself open to spam. For some of you this won’t yet be an issue, but even so there’s no harm in making things hard for spammers from the outset, and there’s a number of ways you can minimise the scourge.
Putting your email address as a hyperlink on your site will mean it can be found by spam bots and dropped into their databases. One way round this is to display your email address as an image. This will mean real people will have to type your address out, but it will prevent your address from be auto-scanned by all but the most advanced systems.
Another option is to refer all communication to a contact form on your website, which you can do by simply hyperlinking to that page rather than your e-mail address. You can reduce spam even further by including a CAPTCHA. If you have a wordpress site, installing a plugin such as Contact Form 7 will allow you to do this.
Step 4 – Get organised
Hopefully by this point your inbox is now as close as possible to just emails that actually require your attention. First of all, give yourself a high five. You’re already leaps and bounds forward from where you were.
Right, the next step comes in how you’re going to manage these emails, and this is the point at which you need to have a system.
Personally I’m a big fan of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done: How To Achieve Stress Free Productivity” – which is an detailed methodology for organising your life. We don’t need to go into all the detail (drop me a comment if you want to discuss further!) but one recommendation David has for emails is viewing your email inbox as a sorting area, from which you move each message to a separate folder depending on it’s nature.
Anything that can be either deleted or dealt with in less than 2 minutes should be done the first time you see it. It takes longer to read it, close it, re-open it and read it again than it would if you’d just dealt with it the first time.
Everything remaining should then fall into three categories:
- Something you want to keep, but that doesn’t require any action.
- Something that requires further action that is going to take more than two minutes of your time,
- Something that requires an action from somebody else (i.e. you’re waiting for them)
If we use Gmail as an example, Archive anything in category 1, and create two labels – “Action” and “Waiting For”, to drag categories 2 and 3 onto respectively.
Separating reference items from action items reduces stress by ensuring that everything that requires an action is in one place where you can revisit and monitor it, and improves productivity by removing the clutter of reference items from important stuff.
Then, once you get to “Inbox Zero”, you can devote some time (or preferably schedule a regular slot) to get through the actions required for important correspondence.
It’s fair to say that this is just one way of systematizing your e-mail management, and it’s worth experimenting and finding what works for you. For example, if you do most of your email on your phone then moving email into different folders isn’t going to be practical. You may prefer to simply archive anything that doesn’t require an action (swipe left twice on the iPhone), or flag anything requiring follow up (swipe left once, and hit flag).
Regardless of which system you chose there is a certain level of commitment required to regularly check on your action items. However, once you’ve got something working even if life causes things to slip you can much more swiftly get back to organised. Maintaining discipline with email is in fact the final step in owning it!
Step 5 – Kick the habit
Too much of anything is bad for you, and this is just as true of email. Be honest with yourself. Has checking email become more impulse than requirement? Do you find yourself reaching for your phone even without realising it?
Well I know I’ve been guilty of this – advert breaks, bus stops, TRAFFIC LIGHTS!
The problem with checking email all the time is that you’re immediately giving priority to other peoples priorities at the expense of your own.
So what should we be aiming for? Well in truth this will depend largely on the nature of your work. If your customers are the kind that expect immediate responses for example then it’s going to be tough to cut down. Most people however can significantly improve their productivity by reducing the number of times they check email to 2-3 times a day.
But how can you go about breaking the habit? Well much like any diet, removing temptation will far and away have the biggest impact. Turning off email notifications on your phone and computer will be a good first step. Schedule the times that you do plan to check your mail, and do your best to stick to them. If you have scheduled slots you’re going to know when you’re straying!
But my business is different
If you’ve made it this far through the article there’s a strong chance that getting email organised is on your mind. But for many of you reading this you may be thinking that reducing the frequency you check email is a step too far, that you might miss out on a job or not be able to respond in time to something important. That being the case I’d like to finish with a few questions:
- When was the last time that you sent something truly requiring urgent action by email? Did you not just pick up the phone?
- If you experienced a imposed data blackout (maybe a lost phone, or a down internet connection) in the last year, did your business come crumbling down? Did the potential customers all go elsewhere?
- If you were to create a list of all the jobs you have to do, would you put checking your e-mail even in your top five? And yet…
Hopefully this provides some good food for thought…
What do you think about our five steps to getting organised with e-mail. Think they could make a difference in your business? We’d love to hear from you! Already got email licked? Let us know how you did it! Don’t think you’re ever going to be able to cut down (and maybe you don’t want to?). Well drop us a comment, e-mail, FB post or tweet and join the discussion!