How email organization can resolve deeper issues which are holding you back

Years ago, there used to be stacks upon stacks of letters and bills in our houses, waiting to be opened. There used to be phones ringing off the hook on Sunday afternoons. There used to be neighbors dropping by to knock on the door.

Nowadays, there is email.

At first, email was fun.  I remember graduating from aol to a free service that offered custom domains. My email address was ‘[email protected]’, right up until gmail came along. Receiving email as a preteen and receiving email as an adult is a very different emotional experience.

Although I still go through periods where I dread checking my email, I have mostly been able to learn how to manage my email communication, and how to feel much better about receiving new messages. Learning to manage my email was vital because I find it close to impossible to relax and go with the flow if I know my inbox is full of un-tended-to or unread email.

I know that not everyone needs to empty their inbox every night in order to fall asleep. However, I do know that most people wish they were more organized when it comes to dealing with their messages. Here are a few ways I have dealt with my own email challenges.

1.              Question: How do I feel about my email, and why? Some of my most disorganized phases have also been times that I had some unresolved issues or business. Sometimes, I was desperate for work and had to say yes to any paying gig that came my way. Sometimes, I was trying to maintain relationships with people that I didn’t feel much of a connection with. Sometimes, I had inquired about a service that I didn’t really want or knew I couldn’t afford.

One of the most difficult and most effective ways to gain control of your email inbox is to figure out if there is anything you can do in your “real” life to solve any problems that are lurking in your email.

With a pen and paper, click through your email and write down any subject lines or names that elicit of annoyance, dread, anger, or avoidance. Instead of trying to organize your email messages, address these issues, line by line. If you are struggling with work or money, is there any way to ask for help or find some peace about your situation right now? If there is a person you need to make amends with or “consciously uncouple” with, what would be the most loving way to do that?

Once you have an action plan to deal with your unresolved business, it’s time to tackle the inbox itself!

2.            Question: How do I want to feel when I look at my inbox? What will make me feel that way? Your answer to this question will help you identify which tools you need to use or practices you need to adopt. When I look at my inbox, I want to feel in control and full of potential. The things that help me feel this way are:

-Emptying my inbox every evening and keeping it as empty as possible throughout the day

-Responding to email as soon as possible

-Everything that comes into my inbox is something that I feel compelled to open and read

-I receive information by email that I can’t or don’t want to get in any other way (Social media, radio, RSS feed, etc.)

Perhaps someone who likes to feel connected will enjoy using email as a hub for their social media accounts, receiving notifications and invitations to events. Someone who wants to feel knowledgeable will want to receive news articles and interesting newsletters, archiving as they read. There is no right way to manage your email inbox; the most important thing is that it reflects how you want to feel when you look at it.

3.           Question: What can I do to maximize the email that makes me feel great, and minimize the email that makes me feel powerless, grumpy, angry, or indifferent?

This is the fun part, the part where I really geek out. Your ideas can be divided into two sections: Practises and Tools.

Here are some practices that help me stay in control of my email:

1.            Spend 5 or 10 minutes every morning and/or every evening on email.

2.           Treat every email as a to-do item – either respond, file, funnel information contained in the email to calendar, to-do list, or notebook.

3.           If it can be done in 2 minutes, do it now. This basic but brilliant concept comes from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.

There are SO MANY different tools, many of them free, that can help you get more out of your email. A few of my favorites are:

4.          Unroll Me. This is an amazing web application that collects all your email subscriptions (newsletters, notifications etc.) into one place. From there, you can choose to unsubscribe right from the Unroll Me page, exclude any subscriptions from Unroll Me so they keep showing up in your inbox as normal, and group subscriptions into one handy-dandy newsletter that comes whenever you say you want it. I’m telling you, it will change your life, and it’s free.

5.           Follow Up Then. Another amazing application that I use every day and don’t know what I would do without. Forward or CC any email to [whatever time/day you want a reminder], and then just archive the email. FUT will send the email back to you when you asked for it. FUT is free.

6.           Auto-responders. Most email applications come with the capacity to set at least a simple auto-responder. I keep it friendly, professional, and lighthearted, usually give the reason I’m not responding, and I indicate that the message is an auto-response so no one gets confused.  I always set one when I know I’m swamped with work and won’t be able to respond right away, if I’m on vacation, or if I’m taking a few days screen-free. It helps me relax when I know that no one is wondering where I am and why I’m not getting back to them.

7.           Canned responses. Gmail offers a lab that I use quite often called “Canned Responses” – if you don’t have Gmail, you can simply keep a few frequently-used response templates in your drafts folder and copy and paste them when you need to use them. Some examples of times I use canned responses:

a.            I’m selling something on Craigslist or Kijiji

b.           I’m hiring someone for something and I’ve advertised the position

c.            Business-type things that I end up typing the same thing to people over and over, like requests for quotes or availability

I don’t necessarily use canned responses to avoid typing, I usually use them to redirect my time into typing things that will help me connect with the people I’m emailing (even if I’m using a canned responses template).

“Whenever you place your fingers on the keyboard, you have an opportunity to add to the love in the world or subtract from it.

You have an opportunity to lift someone’s spirits — or sink them.

You have a chance to get what you need while giving — or get what you need while taking.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a text message to a friend, popping off a note to a colleague or filling out a form on the Internet.

Eventually, your words will reach a living, breathing, feeling human being.

Eventually, your words will land and leave a mark.”

This quote is from a great writer named Alexandra Franzen that was featured on Autostraddle a few months ago, and who I now follow. She has some wonderful insight into the ways we can use email to inspire and uplift others, and to truly effectively communicate. Here’s her article on writing better email.

If you’d like some help organizing your email and don’t know where to turn, you can always write me below! I can answer any questions you have, and you can even hire me to do it for you, or guide you through it if you have a few extra bucks and are short on time. I’ve prepared a free worksheet to help you work through some of the questions that will help get you on track to feeling great about your inbox.

R.C. Woodmass