Independent technology contractors have email coming in from all angles -- clients (past and present) asking for updates on projects, colleagues asking for referrals or to catch up, recruiters of all sorts sending job opportunities, invoices and communications from suppliers, and of course friends and family looking to connect for unlimited reasons. Failure to keep up with these emails can damage relationships, result in lost opportunities, or give you a reputation for being disorganize and unhelpful. Here are a few simple ways you can get your email under control so you can excel at serving your clients and reducing stress in your life.
Split Your Emails into Separate Inboxes
When all of your emails go to one place, you're asking for a disorganized mess of clutter. You're also sentencing yourself to distractions, mixed priorities and brutal time management. We suggest independent contractors have 3+ inboxes:
A personal inbox: This is where emails from family, friends, volunteer groups, and home-related bills should go. Any email that comes here should either require a response or an action of some sort.
Your contracting business's inbox: Give this email address to recruiters, colleagues, past and potential clients, suppliers -- anybody relating to your business. To maintain a professional image, you may want to purchase a domain name related to your business and use this for your email address.
The bulk mail inbox: We don't want to say "SPAM", because this inbox may contain information you like receiving, but nothing that's priority or requires an action. For example, this is a great email address to use for social media notifications and newsletter subscriptions.
+ Client inboxes: When you start a project, clients often provide you with an inbox for their organization. This this for everything related to the specific project, but avoid using it for anything else. Continue emailing recruiters from your business inbox and don't give your client's address away for personal emails.
Schedule Time to Check Each Inbox
Each inbox will have different priorities and should be checked at different times to ensure you're managing your time well. For example, your bulk mail inbox may be checked only on Sunday morning, your personal inbox in the evenings, business inbox a few more scheduled times per day, and the client inbox only while you're on the clock.
Try working towards Inbox Zero (or some form of it) By the End of Each Day
The concept of Inbox Zero is the theory that your stress will be significantly reduced if you're not always staring at a full inbox. Set a goal to empty your inbox (or set a number of 10 or 50, depending on your personal volume) by the end of each day. Inbox Zero can be achieved with a few simple tricks:
Unsubscribe to everything you do not read.
If the email does not require further action, archive it.
If the email is just sitting as a reminder, add a task or calendar reminder somewhere else, and archive it.
If the email does not need to be replied to immediately, move it to a "Respond next week" folder, and archive it (just remember to set time to review that folder, and respond to the sender letting them know when you will review their email).
Take Advantage of Labelling and Searching
Finding email is as important to organizing as responding to it. With advanced search tools available in email, it is no longer necessary to create a complex folder system, which often makes it more difficult to retrieve an email. Instead, popular online email services like Gmail and Outlook let you add labels before archiving an email. When you also use as many keywords in subject lines as possible, you can find an email using a search based on labels, keywords, recipients, and date.
Review the Email Tools Available to You
In addition to various plug-ins and extensions that can make emailing easier, check out what's already available to you. Canned responses and email templates are great to quickly respond to emails you always get (ex. The "Thanks, but no thanks" email you send to recruiters), and automated rules will help you quickly label or archive emails as they come in.
Stop Emailing So Much
Sometimes we email much more frequently than necessary. Back-and-forth strings trying to tie down a time to meet or arguing over a solution are settled better over the phone or in-person. These long strings are only cluttering your inbox and causing you to miss important emails.
Every IT professional has to use email in their life and independent contractors must be organized to be productive and better serve clients. How can you improve your email habits? Is there anything you can add to the suggestions above?