Think back to those dim and distant days of the early 2000s -- a time when the email inbox was a relatively calm, sane and civilised environment.
At best, you might have checked your mail once or twice a day in those happy far-off times. The arrival of a new message was generally cause for some sort minor celebration or would at least be something you were actually expecting about a relevant topic.
A few short years later and the situation has sadly changed for the worse. The average inbox is now an uncontrollable torrent of frantic random spam, heavy sales pitches, imagined urgency and other people's problems.
For all the fancy web-based productivity and project management apps that have recently emerged, the vast majority of most people's daily work is conducted via the inbox and that inbox is increasingly out of control.
It's time to stop the rot, reclaim some sanity and kick your inbox into shape. Start with these simple steps:
1. Make Your Boundaries Clear
It's up to you to set the rules of engagement for your approach to email. Begin by taking a few moments to mentally review the style of people you interact with most often via email. Are there negative patterns there? People who send emails at 5:29 or on a weekend demanding instant responses?
Just because email is constantly available does not mean it must be constantly monitored or responded to.
Rather than just randomly responding to everything that pops up in your inbox, start developing a strategy for processing your email in bulk at set intervals and set expectations with your correspondents accordingly.
2. Pick A Schedule And Stick To It
Following on from point one, checking email constantly or leaping at every notification is a recipe for mental disaster and incredibly damaging for productivity. Start the healing process by turning off your email notifications entirely. You are an adult, you do not need a little bell ringing every time an email arrives. Then map out set times of the day when you will check your email. Ideally this would be no more than three times daily but pick whatever works best for your circumstances and stick to it.
3. Raise Your Writing Game
Hammer this into your head - shorter is better.
Few people enjoy opening their inbox at all these days, exponentially fewer relish trudging through long emails trying desperately to locate the point or action item they're meant to address. The worst possible example of this is of course the lengthy, inter-departmental email thread - the bane of the modern workplace.
Start your journey along the road to concision by considering whether you should even be sending an email at all. Is a phone call a better way of handling this? Could you as easily IM someone for a quick yes/no? Then save yourself a send and do so.
If you do have to send an email, take the extra time to make it concise, on-topic and with action items clearly outlined. Remember, don't just hit send. As with any written communication, you need to edit before publishing. The first draft is not the final draft. Do your readers the favour of going over your email a few times at least prior to sending. They'll appreciate it and your words will carry more weight.
4. Stop The Drama
Because it's the primary form of daily working communication, many people fall into the trap of assigning outsize importance to the medium of email.
How often have you seen someone hunched in front of their screen, physically wincing at the contents of an email or wildly over-reacting to the words on the screen? Maybe that person is even you from time to time?
Email, at the end of the day, is simply a tool. Start using it as such. Introduce some discipline to your working life and kick that inbox into shape. Remember, you should be running it rather than vice versa.