If you’re a business owner and you are finding yourself strapped for time, email should be one of the first things to go. For most people, it is not only the biggest time sink, but the least productive way they spend your hours. Email feels busy, but how many messages not worth responding to do you go through a day? How many could have been answered with form emails or directed to an FAQ?
I’ll be honest; I have little discipline when it comes to my inbox. I went as far as adding Gmail to an app that flashes warnings at me whenever I’m doing something labeled "not work." I still found myself cheating. My inbox was a constant distraction.
Since then, I’ve followed some guides and developed my own process. I'm getting everything finished and I spend only 20 minutes a day answering emails. It’s something you have to customize for your own situation, but I believe the following process can allow anyone to do the same.
Track How Much Time You’re Using
You can’t fix a problem you don’t fully understand: You need to see firsthand how much time answering emails is taking away from productive endeavors. This is an easy step for anyone. Use any timer online or on your desk. Similar to when I first started counting calories, when I first started tracking my time spent on email, I realized my initial estimates were way off. I was spending about four hours a day just picking through my inbox. But even when I only checked my inbox at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., I was only part of the way there. I was still spending two hours a day looking at emails and found myself checking my inbox before bed as well.
Once you understand how much time you’re using, you can set a goal. I had a pretty big one: I wanted to go through my whole honeymoon without worrying about emails piling up. I broke up my milestones by months, and I measured with daily time spent on email. Last month, my goal was to get down to 30 minutes per day. I was a little bit ahead of schedule. Next month, I'll aim for 15 minutes, and then five. By August, I plan to spend no time in my inbox.
Eliminate And Automate
You’d be surprised how much lighter your inbox becomes when you make use of standard features like filters. For the first 30 days, try setting up filters daily. In Gmail, you can filter to archive, filter to labels, filter and forward to someone else, and the list goes on.
Have some fun and count how many emails you are receiving in a given week. Divide that by seven to get your average daily emails received. You can measure against this number at the end of week five. Unsubscribe from everything. If you must keep it, filter it to your archive. You can always run a search to find it later on. In my experience, you absolutely will not. I am still waiting to “need” a single thing from my archives.
It might sound super fancy to have an assistant, but it really isn’t. If you are running a company, or several, I can almost guarantee this will save you more money than it costs. Pick up a copy of The 4-Hour Workweek, because Tim Ferriss had a lot to say about this topic. It inspired my method. I am still very much in the thick of it and am learning as I go.
This was by far the most time-consuming part of the process, but totally worth it. You need to work with your assistant to have them handle every email they reasonably can. You’ll need to be patient, as this takes a long time to learn. I am currently down spending only an average of 15 minutes (last night 42 minutes), two-to-three times per week going over emails my assistant doesn’t know what to do with (far from four hours, right?). Not one important email has been missed, yet I’ve saved hundreds of hours on emails in the past couple months.
Your next 30 days is all about documentation. Create an FAQ for whoever you choose to delegate your mailbox to. Keep in mind, you don’t have to delegate right away. You may find that by the time you get to this step, your time savings are considerable and you can manage from here. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t document what you are doing. In the event you change your mind and/or your needs grow, you will be prepared to pass it off. I do this with everything.
I built my FAQ based on Tim Ferriss’ template that he shares in his book. Record login information for your various email accounts, the purpose of each account, some basics around setting appointments, a reply policy, when to check for mail, and other rules to follow. Finally, include the FAQ that is intended to provide context for your lifestyle and answer common questions so you don't have to go over the same ones over and over again.
Free yourself from the frustrating time sink that is email. Analyze all of the ways that you're spending your time. By tracking, automating, delegating and documenting, you can get your duties as a business owner narrowed down to the most important strategic decisions.
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