Almost everyone is bad at email.
It shows up in a number of ways: the number of unread emails in your inbox. The amount of time you’re wasting on email. Or just the total frustration that email causes you.
But here’s the good news: You can get better at email. It’s really easy — and it starts with these five simple steps:
1. Filter every single thing that comes into your inbox.
Your goal should be simple: When you open your inbox, all you should see are emails from family, friends, and important co-workers. Everything else should be filtered into an another folder or category.
If you’ve got Gmail, then using the Priority Inbox can help keep all your emails in the right place. There’s simply no reason for Facebook notifications or LinkedIn updates to clog your main inbox.
(But the bad news: The Priority Inbox isn’t available for most mobile devices.)
Other popular clients, like Yahoo or Outlook, also make it easy for you to filter emails into specific folders, which will keep your inbox uncluttered. (Here’s how to filter on Yahoo, and here’s how to do it in Outlook.)
2. Don’t respond faster — just shorter.
Most people spend too long composing emails, and that just leads to a backlog of emails to deal with.
So respond faster. Some emails only require a few words. (Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is famous for responding to emails with as little a question mark.) It’s rare that an email really needs to go longer than five to seven sentences.
The shorter the response, the less time you’ll spend dealing with your inbox.
There are also tools to help you process email faster. One of the best is Boomerang, which lets you schedule emails for later and hide emails from your inbox for as long as you want.
3. Stop using your inbox as a to-do list.
This is one of the biggest mistakes that people make on email. If you’ve got tasks to complete, use an app like TeuxDeux or Todoist — or a notebook — to keep track of your to-do list. But don’t leave emails in your inbox that are supposed to remind you to do something. They’ll get lost as new emails flood into your inbox, and then you’ll forget about them.
The inbox does not work as a to-do list, and trying to use it to keep track of your tasks is an easy way to get completely overwhelmed by email.
4. Stop emailing people on your phone.
You can quote me on this: You never need to answer an email on your phone, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either:
A) Wrong, or
B) Your boss (And in this case, your boss is also wrong).
Your goal for 2014 should be to move through email efficiently. But here’s the thing: Your phone’s where you go to be distracted. You go there to waste time on Facebook, or to text a friend, or to read a story you saved for later. Your phone is one giant distraction machine.
What makes you think that you would be efficient with email on your phone?
Don’t email on your phone. Save your emails for when you sit down at a computer and can give the inbox your complete focus. The minute you turn email off on your phone is the minute you rediscover some of your sanity.
And if you do have to get email on your phone, by all means, turn off email notifications. Those notifications will add up and drive you crazy.
5. Unsubscribe from absolutely everything that is not necessary.
Do you subscribe to a lot of email newsletters? Here’s a simple fix: You should unsubscribe from almost all of them.
Most of those newsletters and notification emails aren’t essential — and if it’s not essential, it doesn’t belong in your inbox anymore.
If you use a tool like Unroll.me, it’ll scan all of your newsletters, and let you one-click unsubscribe from the ones you don’t want. (It’ll also let you combine several other newsletters into a daily digest, which will keep even more clutter out of your inbox.)