1. Get organized. If your inbox is a jumbled mess of mail from co-workers, your boss, and your clients, it's time to use labels. Most email programs allow you to sort your incoming mail so that it's directed to a corresponding folder. This way, all the emails from clients can go into folders created for each one, your priority emails from your boss can go into a different folder (make that folder red for priority!), and jokes and forwards from friends can go into yet another folder.
Google Mail has a neat feature called Priority Inbox. With this system, emails still appear in your inbox, only they're divided and organized into sections based on their subjects or priorities. For example, your travel plans can go in a folder called "Travel." You can set up the emails from people you need to respond to immediately to go into another inbox.
2. Tag it, delete it, or respond to it. Getting Things Done author David Allen writes about prioritizing your incoming tasks. The idea is you must decide whether to act on a task immediately if it takes less than two minutes, whether to file it to take care of later if it requires multiple steps and will take longer than two minutes, or to throw it away. You can use the same technique for your emails.
So many of the emails we receive can be deleted—some without even reading. When you first open your inbox in the morning, immediately delete what will not be responded to or require additional follow-up. For the rest, you'll have to decide whether you need to respond immediately or if you need more time to do so. For the latter, set up an action item. Perhaps make a note on your calendar to send Jeff the materials he needs for the meeting on Friday. This way, you don't forget about the email, you get it out of your inbox and on to a place where you will be able to take the necessary steps to complete the task. Getting into this habit will help you reduce the number of extraneous emails.
3. Clear the clutter. We sign up for some newsletters or shop online and then we often end up on other lists without knowing why. Rather than spending minutes each day deleting the newsletters and promotional emails you don't want, take a moment each day to unsubscribe from them. This will reduce the number of emails you receive, and keep you from being distracted by unwanted junk email.
4. Schedule mail time. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, has made the idea of checking your email twice a day popular. If you're refreshing your email constantly to see what's new, you're wasting time you could be spending elsewhere at work. If your email refreshes automatically and you're getting distracted by that ping that indicates you've got mail, set it to require you to refresh it manually, then choose a few times a day to do so. You'll find you're able to focus and complete other tasks better when you stop worrying about who is emailing you.
Becoming a more efficient email user takes time and you'll need to dedicate some initial time in getting better at it. It does have its benefits: You'll free up more time quickly, plus be faster at responding to the emails that matter and at completing your tasks with less distraction.
Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs.com, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at LindsayOlson.com, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.