How Your Virtual Assistant Can Help You Reach Inbox Zero

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According to a 2019 survey from Adobe, US workers spent an average of 352 minutes per day checking email. For all my math whizzes out there, that’s nearly six hours of email every single day.

That’s a whole lot of time.

What would you do with six additional hours each day? Write a book? Create a killer growth strategy? Start a band? Take your kids to the zoo? Reducing the amount of time you spend in your inbox opens up endless possibilities. 

Putting your virtual assistant to work in creating a streamlined inbox is a huge opportunity to boost your productivity and earning potential. If your hourly rate with clients is $150, that’s $900 per day you’re losing to the six hours in your inbox. Not to mention the unquantifiable time you could be spending with loved ones or pursuing interests outside work.

To get even two hours back to dedicate to client work each day, that’s $1,500 a week and about $75,000 a year. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is.

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Let’s take a closer look at some of the tactics you can use to spend less time in your inbox and more time building a business and a life you love.

Take These Steps First

You can reduce some of your inbox stresses all on your own before bringing an assistant into the fold.

Not only will these tips reduce the time spent in your inbox, they will also automate some of the tasks a virtual assistant would otherwise handle manually. So you’ll be getting the greatest bang for your buck in having your assistant handle only functions a fellow human being must do.

  • Use a scheduling tool. Setting up meetings the old-fashioned way takes a lot of time. There’s the back-and-forth to find a mutually agreeable time, followed by the effort that goes into creating and sending the calendar invite. Tools like Mixmax and Calendly automate all of that. With a scheduling tool, you set your ideal meeting schedule on the backend and send a link to the other party, asking them to schedule in one of your open windows. Once they select a time, the scheduling tool sets the meeting. So easy!
  • Eliminate the noise. How many newsletters do you receive each week that you never, ever read? The quickest way to reduce the clutter in your inbox is to go Marie Kondo on your inbox and unsubscribe from those email lists that do not spark joy. You can do this manually or use a tool like Unroll.me!

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  • Turn off Notifications. Even when you’re hard at work on another task, it’s tough to ignore that little email notification when it slides into the corner of your screen. That’s why it’s crucial to turn email notifications off. The siren song of a new email pulls you away from other tasks, and the more frequently you break focus to check your inbox (again), the more time you waste on email throughout the day.

Inbox Management With a VA

Now that you’ve automated what you can and eliminated email distractions from your desktop, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of how an assistant can keep your inbox looking so fresh and so clean, clean.

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1. Create Canned Responses

How many times per day do you write the same thing over and over? When you’re running a business, you’re often repeating a script to multiple people in the same part of your sales funnel.

All of your prospects are likely getting a similar set of emails around booking a discovery call. New clients all need the same information as part of the onboarding process. If you run a consumer-facing business, incoming customer questions will likely be repeats.

Ask your assistant to go back through your recently sent emails to identify patterns. Once they’ve created a list of these often-used replies, they can draft canned versions to use time and again.

After you approve the language of the canned response, your VA can use a tool to create templated responses. Each email provider has its own version—Canned Responses in Gmail, Quick Steps in Microsoft Outlook, or one of any number of plugin options. Once the responses are drafted, your assistant can resend them time and again with the simple click of a mouse.

2. Use Flags and Stars

This piece of advice may seem like it’s part of a children’s game for July 4th, but it’s actually an effective technique for managing a hectic inbox.

Starring or flagging an incoming message (depending on the terminology used by your email management tool) is a way to mark it as important.

When your assistant manages your inbox, they may have a handful of emails they can respond to on their own, using a combination of your scheduling tool and canned responses to get the job done. But when they come across something out of the ordinary—a strange request, an angry client email, or anything else they don’t feel comfortable handling—they can mark it with a flag or a star.

Then, when you pop into your inbox later, you can quickly scan for these messages and head right to the emails that need your urgent attention.

3. Filter Those Messages!

No matter what you do for a living, there are only seven categories of emails you might receive daily:

  • Scheduling/meeting requests
  • New business/lead nurturing-related communications
  • Existing work you need or that needs your attention
  • Legal or financial communication
  • Marketing emails/subscriptions
  • Personal notes or requests
  • General spam

Creating filters in your inbox allows you to automatically tag and file messages. If you run a service-based business, as we do at Don’t Panic, you likely get emails from different clients throughout the day. You can establish a filter that automatically pops emails from Client A into a folder where all communications with that client live.

Then, when it’s that time of day for you to turn your attention to Client A, rather than sifting through your inbox for relevant messages, you can beeline right to that folder and dive immediately into work.

4. Customize Your Inbox

Did you know that Gmail allows you to customize the layout of your inbox? It’s true! Head up to the gear icon in the top right corner, and you’ll see several inbox variations and customizations available to you.

Google has this handy dandy guide for understanding what these different inbox types mean.

If you want one-click customization, important first, unread first, or starred first is for you. Each option is pretty self-explanatory and offers light customization to ensure the most important messages greet you at the top of your inbox.

At Don’t Panic, we often have multiple inboxes we manage, both for ourselves and our clients. Rather than signing into and out of a handful of email accounts each day, we use the multiple inboxes tool. It places all of the mail across inboxes into one inbox.

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The multiple inboxes tool might be the right fit for you if you manage, say, a general inquiries inbox, a customer care inbox, and your personal inbox for your own business.

5. Snooze or Ask for a Nudge

Two more Gmail features we love are the “snooze” and “nudge” features. If you have an email you’ve been meaning to respond to but keep putting off, it’s likely filtered down into the lower sludge of your inbox and can easily be lost forever.

With the nudge tool, Gmail will float that unanswered email back to the top of your inbox with a little reminder to respond. You can also “snooze” an email so that it disappears from your inbox for now, but comes back to the top at a designated date and time when you’re more ready to handle it. How great is that?

It Starts With a Strategy

Listen, no matter what email service you use, there are tons of tools out there to help you tame your inbox. We hope this post made you excited to try some of them!

But before you dive into your Gmail settings, pause that mouse finger for just one second. These tools and hacks are helpful, but only if you have a straightforward process for using them in your inbox.

Get clear on what kind of messages necessitate a star. Decide how you want to filter messages. Set up folders in your inbox that makes sense to you so you don’t find yourself searching aimlessly for old filtered messages.

A streamlined inbox begins with a clear set of processes and rules. If you’ve always lived in inbox chaos and don’t know where to start, that’s okay! Your VA probably has some practical strategies to suggest. Chat with them about your options and devise a plan together.

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Once you have a game plan, your VA can create the folders and filters necessary to enact it. Then, you can rest easy knowing that there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. And on those occasions where you do need to pop into your inbox, you’ll know exactly where to look for the information you seek.

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