If you've ever thought, "I could get so much done if people would stop emailing me," you're not alone. I work with dozens of development directors, CEOs, and board members and I hear that from most of them.
I feel the same way sometimes, of course--and yet despite working with over 50 clients (i.e. helping carry the fundraising load for 50 different organizations), my email inbox is empty right now as I write this.
There are a number of reasons, and not all of them can just copy and paste into your life. And sometimes (like with keeping track of tasks) different tools work better for different people. But here are some things that have helped me reduce my time spent on email by probably 80%:
Inbox is Gmail's new web/phone app that incorporates everything Google has learned from running Gmail over the years. It allows you to group emails (automatically) a lot more intelligently and with a lot more room for customization, so the stuff you don't need to open can get swiped away in one touch, the stuff you don't need to read never even clutters your inbox (though you can easily find it if you want it), and things that you just don't need to worry about right now get snoozed for any time you want (and disappear till then). You can pin important emails so they stay at the top of our inbox till you've dealt with them. Responding is also faster and more intuitive. You can even leave yourself reminders that don't appear till you need them. I was pretty organized before I even touched this product, but even then it reduced my time spent on email by probably 20%.
Sometimes you need to manage individual relationships and keep track of when to contact lots of different people (for example, a contact/relationship development flow where you want to email somebody today, then send a follow-up email a week later, then a call in a month, etc.). If these are pretty simple and straightforward and there aren't too many at once, you can use Gmail's reminders and snoozes to keep track (it's pretty smart; like if you say "call John Doe at 9:00am on Thursday," you'll actually be able to click the reminder and go straight into the call). If, however, you've got loads of these--like for an entire set of dozens of donors--you seriously need to consider a good CRM and/or project management software (17hats and various free project management tools can be good for individuals or small groups...I still haven't found an affordable CRM that does everything I think they should).
Also, this doesn't work for Inbox yet, but for regular Gmail, you can install the Boomerang extension so that messages send later. If you don't want to be that jerk filling up your team's inboxes on Sunday night, give that a try. (It also allows you to automatically re-send an email at a designated time if it hasn't been read or responded to.)
Unroll.Me is one of several apps that'll allow you to unsubscribe en masse from any email subscriptions you don't want, and aggregate any remaining ones into a single email. It scans your inbox for what in my case turned out to be literally hundreds of subscriptions I'd picked up over the years. Then it allows me (en masse or one at a time) to roll up all those emails (the ones I still want) into a single email I get at a time of my choosing. They come in a two-column format, a fixed box per email, so I can glance through that JCrew sale, the latest three emails from that listserv, etc. in about 10 seconds. If I can tell from glancing at the subject line and first paragraph or so that I want to read an email, I can just click it--but more often than not, a quick glance is all I spend on it--instead of opening, reading, and archiving 20 different emails throughout the day. (I got into Unroll.Me before Inbox for Gmail launched, so it's hard to say if I would get it again now, since Inbox mirrors some of the functions--but unsubscribing from dozens of things I no longer want would still be awfully helpful.)
I've tried lots of project management tools, but so far Evernote has given me the best combination of the features I use most often. Emails I don't need to read till right before that meeting can get funneled right into a note in that client's notebook and have a time-sensitive reminder attached to them that can buzz my phone if I need it to. And unlike a lot of "to-do list" tools, rather than just have a to-do item, I can have any length of notes, Word documents, PDFs, videos, etc. all tied in directly to what I need to remember. And the nice thing is, Evernote syncs or connects with seemingly everything. Between Evernote and Inbox, I never have to leave an email in my inbox to remind me of something, and instead of six emails representing one massive pile of work I need to get through in order to clear out my inbox, they disappear into tasks and projects that I'll take care of at the appropriate time. (I actually track nearly all my client data in Evernote, and can use its phone widget to quickly glance at what I've got coming up today or this week.) And a quick "forward" click, or copy and paste, or screenshot capture, or in the case of many apps clicking an integrated Evernote button, allows me to archive information where I can find it later rather than poring over it right now.
I read a lot of articles. I'm friends with a lot of interesting people on Facebook, and I like reading a lot of helpful industry blogs. Those two things are the main places I get interesting stuff that makes it onto my own social media postings (via Buffer) and blogging. That used to devour a ton of my time. Feedly allows me to subscribe to all those blogs and magazines at once, and just check what's new at my convenience. Pocket allows me (from my phone or browser) to save articles for reading later (in a gorgeous, customizable, mobile-friendly format--even if the site they came from wasn't mobile-friendly). Now checking Facebook doesn't have to mean getting sucked in. Usually in the morning, I spend less than three minutes scanning Facebook. An interesting article or two get added to Pocket. Then I end up reading the article on my phone later, when I'm waiting in line for lunch or waiting for the water to boil for dinner.
Nobody owns you. Under normal circumstances, nobody has the right to expect a response on a Sunday morning. Many, many emails go through that just don't need your one-sentence response (or your long argumentative one when this argument really doesn't matter, or could be done faster by phone). So don't. I've gotten pretty vicious about that swipe motion on my Inbox for Gmail app that removes an email from my inbox.
Sometimes saying no can be a passive thing--just ignoring some emails, or responding the following week to establish a dynamic. Sometimes I've been surprised to find that somebody I thought was being presumptuous about my time was actually just getting something off his plate, and was actually happy to not have to think about it again until I responded a week later.
But other times saying no requires a tough conversation with somebody--a co-worker, a client, a colleague, a donor, a boss (okay, the last one you might have to live with). Sometimes it requires being the grouch for a day. But I've found that if I establish boundaries and precedents with people (even if that means enforcing them once or twice), they're usually pretty good about respecting them. For example, I had one client who had a habit of emailing me every time she thought of something relevant to me--it might be a project that needed doing, or it might just be a random idea. That was how she worked, and it was partly how she kept her inbox empty. But the net result was 12-16 emails per day. If I had to live with that because she was my boss, she would have been a good candidate for Unroll.Me so I could just check her emails once a day and skim them all at once. But since she wasn't my boss, we ended up having several conversations about how to best adjust each of our habits so that we could work well together. She started adding those random thoughts to an Evernote file, and copying and pasting it into an email a couple times a week (or saving it for our weekly phone call).
Schedule email checks
Checking your email is not quick. I forget the stats, but it's something like triple the time you think it does. Mentally detaching from what you're doing, focusing on your emails, and then getting back into the groove takes a lot of time. So pace yourself. Stop thinking of email as a heartbeat to which you must constantly be connected, and start thinking of it as a project you do each day. Check a few times a day at specific intervals, or when you have some spare time. People will actually survive if they have to wait an extra hour to hear from you.
Be smart about responses
Ask yourself these questions:
(1) Does this absolutely require a response? (If not, lose it.)
(2) If it does, what kind? If it's a quickie, consider doing the quickies in batches a couple times a day (see "schedule email checks" above). You'll take up less time than if you did them individually over the course of the day.
(3) If it requires a longer response, think about when would be good to respond to it. With Inbox for Gmail, you can snooze it till tonight, tomorrow morning, etc. And think about HOW is the best way to respond. If it'll take you more than 10 minutes to type the email, consider a phone call. For those rare emails that require five paragraphs of typed text, get in the habit of doing them in three.
All these things, if you make a habit of them, will train you to be faster and more efficient. Too bad the You of today can't go forward in time to see how fast the You of a month from now will look by comparison.
Save common responses
Are there certain inquiries you get a lot? Consider saving common responses in an Evernote note. When you get that email, copy and paste the response rather than doing it manually each time. (If you use Outlook, it actually has a tool that allows you to do this within the email app; e.g. you click "question 1 about monthly giving" and it pastes it into your email automatically.)
That's it! Hope you find at least a couple things in here that you weren't doing already. The more time you have to focus on your core job, the happier you'll be and the better results you'll get.