Like El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, the dream of catching up on your emails, and achieving an empty inbox sits out there like an unrealized myth. Sure there are plenty of websites that tell you how to reach “Inbox Zero,” but if you’re like me, you still walk away from the computer every night unable to process every email. So the question continues: Is it possible to deal with every email, every day?
If you’re a leader and influencer, probably not. Sure, there was a time when I could achieve inbox zero, and the feeling was fantastic. Processing that last email felt so good! But that was a long time ago, and today I receive hundreds of unsolicited emails, mostly from well meaning people wanting me to give them career advice, watch a video, use me as a reference, ask my opinion, help them raise money for a project, share something on social media, and more.
But the fact is, email has made us lazy. Instead of one decisive phone call, we shuffle 6 emails back and forth working out meeting dates or deadlines. Instead of hitting delete, we feel obligated to forward messages we shouldn’t. And don’t get me started on people who hit “reply all.” The result fills our inbox with time wasters. So I haven’t hit inbox zero in years. But you can still stay on top of your email, and here’s how I do it:
1) Unsubscribe from everything you can possibly do without. Your first step is to cut down the fat. Sure, some unsubscribe links target you as a real person for spammers, but today (especially if you’re using a good spam filter) most unsubscribe links are legit. Use them. It will make a tremendous difference.
2) Use boilerplate replies. Take an afternoon and write helpful responses to the most common email requests you receive. Park the document where you can have easy access, and use it. If anything, simply customize the first line. Other than that, create templates you can use over and over. Believe me, a detailed, helpful template you use again and again is far better than something lame you whip up on the spot.
3) Get an assistant. If you’re a leader or influencer you probably already have one, so bring him or her into your email loop. For instance, once I accept a speaking engagement, I have someone in my office take over the logistics of the event. I’ve also given her a copy of my boilerplate responses to help me with email inquiries. I have her deal with people who respond to me through our website. A great assistant can take a huge load off your shoulders, and if you don’t have one, at least find an intern.
4) Stop feeling badly about not responding. The truth is, in this day and age you can’t respond to everyone. I had one staff member tell me that if I responded to everyone that emails me, I wouldn’t have time to actually lead our company or do what God’s called me to do. It’s a point worth thinking about. Sure – if it’s your boss, co-worker, or someone you know well, then obviously respond. But remember this: If it’s unsolicited – particularly from someone you don’t know – there’s no rule that you have to respond. And that’s OK.
5) Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize. Some emails matter a lot, others matter a little, and still others don’t matter at all. Respond in that order. The ones that don’t matter, probably aren’t worth responding to at all.
6) Finally, as I’ve said again and again: If you spend all day answering email, you’re responding to OTHER people’s priorities. You have a career, a dream and a calling. Which is more important? Realizing your dream, or spending hours every day responding to someone else’s dream? It’s up to you.
By the way, here’s a good checklist from my friend Seth Godin to consider before you hit “send” on that next email.
Let’s get over inbox zero and put email in the right context. That’s when you’ll actually start accomplishing something wonderful with your life.