For many people email inboxes have become a graveyard for old newsletters, reference emails and many other types of email. The thought of going in to their inbox just scares the life out of them. And as these emails have been collecting over a number of years and months tying to find anything older than 3 weeks is nay on impossible.
Back in the days before email, when the post (mail) arrived, it was dealt with. We didn’t open the letters, look at them and stuff them back in our mail boxes. To do so would have appeared weird and would probably have elicited complaints from our postman. In the UK, where letters were posted through our front doors, it would have looked even stranger to open the letters and then just throw them back on the floor once we’d read them. It would not be long before we would have been struggling to open our fronts doors because of the weight of opened letters behind the door.
There are two ways of dealing with this problem. The first is the fastest and most dramatic way: just select all the emails in your inbox and hit the delete key. Now you have a clean, fresh inbox. Yes, it’s dramatic, but it works and once you get over the initial fear of deleting something important, you feel a sense of freedom and clarity. The second method is a little less dramatic. this is what I call a “soft email bankruptcy”. Before you do anything, create a folder and name it “Old Inbox”. Then select all the emails in your inbox and move them into the Old Inbox folder. Now all you need do is go through your ‘old inbox’ when you have a few minutes spare and delete the emails you no longer need.
There are other ways of doing this of course, but I find these do not really address the problem. You could for example create smart folders and set up a number of different ‘rules’ for emails to be sent to the appropriate smart folder. This, to me at least, is a complex method of dealing with something straight forward — that is an inbox full of crap you no longer need whether you realise it or not. Creating smart inboxes also has the added complexity of requiring you to check more than one inbox. Far better to get in to the habit of treating your inbox as sacred and not allowing anything to remain in there once you have read it.
Once you have a nice clean, empty inbox you need to keep it that way. When an email comes in, decide immediately what you are going to do with it and do it. Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero methodology is a great way to learn what to do when an email comes in. This site is well worth a read. When you receive an email, you have four choices:
Do it — if it will take less than 2 mins
Delete it — if it has no value to you
Defer it — If it is going to take you longer than 2 mins then put it off until you have more time to deal with it.
Delegate it — If someone else can better deal with it, pass it on to them.
Never leave it in your inbox!
For deferred emails, set up a folder and call it something that will always catch your attention: Something like Winston Churchill’s “Action This Day”. Then all you need do is send any deferred emails into this folder. Likewise you should do this for the delegated emails. This way you have a place you can easily check to make sure emails you delegated are being acted on. I find having a separate folder called “Delegated” gives me a place I can check to make sure these emails have been dealt with.
Like almost anything else to do with productivity, you need to get into the habit of never leaving an email in you inbox once it has been dealt with. Archive it or move to an archive folder. From now on your inbox is sacred.
So much has been written about organising email and there are many apps on the market today that claim to make emailing easy. But the fundamental problem with email is that we leave read and unread email in our inboxes. Over time this laziness means our inboxes fill up with crap. And yes, it is just laziness. An email is either important to us and therefore we need to do something with it, or it is not important to us. If it’s not important delete it or archive it, just don’t leave it in your inbox.
Too often we think a problem is complex, and we then search for a complex solution. More often than not, the problem is not complex at all. Email overload is nothing new. In the days before email we got a lot of mail every single day. People did not complain then, they just got on and dealt with it. Throwing away unimportant stuff and replying to important stuff. And that is all we have to do with email. Move the important stuff to an appropriate place (Evernote, a folder or some other place) and just delete the not important stuff. Simple.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century.