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In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about something: my inbox. Back when I worked a corporate job, the inbox was almost like a filing cabinet.

The e-mail inbox is where things would sit until you could get around to them. It could be one day, one week, one month, or even longer in some cases.

The long delay seemed to happen because you, like most of your coworkers, were doing the job of two or three people. Perhaps someone from your team left and their position was never replaced. You were told to do their job (along with your job), but to “work smarter, not harder.”

At some point, something has to give. You begin to prioritize the concerns of the loudest voice, or the squeaky wheel. Many other concerns fall to the side. And often, this is considered acceptable. Because, you know, everyone else is doing it too.

Frankly, now that I’m not in corporate, this ho hum attitude about e-mail drives me bananas.

You may wonder what changed for me. Let me put it simply. When you work a corporate job, you are guaranteed to get a paycheck — a salary. It shows up every few weeks in your bank account without fail. The one thing you need to do to keep that paycheck coming is to make one person happy: your boss. If your boss is happy, you’re happy. Well, maybe not happy, but you are certainly paid.

As an entrepreneur, you have many customers. Since starting my business, I have literally worked with hundreds of people. Most of those people contact me to setup an appointment using e-mail. If I don’t respond to them right away, they will find someone else to do business with. They’re looking for a job now and they need help right then.

The same thing goes for requests to do speaking, consulting, or TV interviews. If I’m not on top of my e-mail game, opportunities will slip away.

When your paycheck is tied so closely to customer service and speed, your response time becomes a top priority.

But, there’s a lesson to be learned here. Even in a corporate job, your response time should be a priority. Whether you’re interacting with coworkers, vendors, or external business partners, speed is important.

The first question you may ask is, “How quickly should I respond?” My personal philosophy on this is 24-business-hours. The sender should never have to go more than one day without hearing back from you.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect every e-mail to be completely resolved in one day. But, at a minimum, you should acknowledge that you’ve received their message. Even better, set an expectation on when you’ll be able to get back to the sender with an answer to their question, and then follow back up by that time.

Allowing e-mails to sit for days and days just makes you look unprofessional. It really does. It hurts others’ perceptions of you. And, if you make it a habit, you can certainly guarantee that you won’t be at the top of anyone’s list when they’re looking for job candidates to recruit.

The other negative side effect to not responding in a timely manner is that the sender will wonder if you ever received their message. It leaves them in murky waters — questioning if they should resend their e-mail. Did you receive it? Did it go to spam? Did you forget? Are they being annoying by contacting you again? Oh the pain!

Spare your “customers” and “business partners” this internal dialogue and respond. If you’re going to be out of the office, set up an out of office response. If you’re bogged down with work, consider setting up an automatic reply that says you’ve received the message and will get back with them ASAP, but that you are currently attending a conference (or whatever the reason).

Now that we’ve set an expectation of 24 hours, the next question becomes, “How in the heck can I wade through all my e-mail in one day and get anything ELSE done? That sounds impossible!”

So often, I hear “But, I get 200 e-mails a day!” It’s almost like a bragging right. Listen, at this point, everyone is getting 200 e-mails a day. It’s not just you. That’s just the reality of the situation.

Here are a few of the things I’ve implemented over the past year that has led me to successfully achieve “inbox zero.”

  1. Set aside time on your calendar every day to respond to e-mails. I set aside one hour in the morning. That way, if I don’t have time to respond to e-mails during the day because of other priorities, I know I’ll do it the next morning.
  2. Use extra time to delete e-mails. If I’m in line at the grocery store or waiting for my breakfast to cook, I will take a few minutes to delete e-mails from my inbox that aren’t sent by individual people. I’m talking about the almost daily e-mails from Petco and Macy’s and the twenty other coupon e-mails I get.
  3. Setup filtering within your inbox. If you receive an e-mail receipt from a certain website every month (for example), setup an automatic filter that will move it to a certain folder for you. This reduces the number of e-mails you need to sort through.
  4. Create a folder for things you’ve responded to, but need to know for future reference. This was one of the most helpful things I did to clean out my inbox. I had a handful of e-mails in my inbox (about 20) that I kept there because they had some piece of information in them I might need in the future. Put those in a folder that’s easy to access, but allows you to get the messages out of your main inbox.
  5. Stop using “reply-all.” This practice fills up our inboxes much faster than it should. Use reply-all sparingly and help to reduce the amount of e-mail being sent all the way around.
  6. Export events to your calendar. Do this right away to keep from having to go back and remember what’s happening when.
  7. Keep a task list. Add larger requests you’ve received through e-mail to your task list. Respond to the sender to confirm your receipt of the message and set a realistic expectation on when you’ll follow up. Then, review the task list daily to ensure you close out the task when promised.
  8. Consider using apps. Although my app use within e-mail is at a minimum, many people swear by them. If you’re struggling to clean out your inbox, you may want to try a few.

If all else fails, consider declaring “e-mail bankruptcy.” This is a term coined in 2002 by Dr. Sherry Turkle (and in 2004 by Lawrence Lessig) that describes the decision to delete all old e-mails, due to the large volume of messages that are backed up. You delete all your messages. Then, you send an e-mail to everyone in your contact list explaining the situation. You request that if they still need a response from you, they resend their original message. This method is clearly a last resort.

Whatever you do, good luck at cleaning out your e-mail inbox! When you succeed, you’ll find it’s a huge emotional weight off your shoulders each day — and it will make you look on top of things and professional.

I hope these tips have helped you. Visit CopelandCoaching.com to find more tips to improve your job search. If I can be of assistance to you, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.

Also, be sure to subscribe to my Copeland Coaching Podcast on iTunes and Stitcher where I discuss career advice every Tuesday! If you’ve already heard the podcast and enjoy it, please consider leaving a review in iTunes or Stitcher.

Happy hunting!

Angela Copeland
@CopelandCoach

Author: Angela Copeland

Angela Copeland is Founder and Coach for Copeland Coaching, a great way to jump start your job search. Follow her on Twitter @CopelandCoach for tips on finding the perfect job for you.