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Get your e-mail inbox into shape

- Author: Crystal - 1 Comment

This week, my friend Julia attended a workshop called “Reboot Your Work: Modern Methods for Productivity, Sanity, and Control”, presented by productivity consultant Matt Cornell. (Oooh! I wish I could have gone too!!)

I thought Matt had a good suggestion for people whose e-mail inboxes are out of control. One not-so-productive workshop trainee (we’ll call him “Phil”) complained of having 17,000 unread messages in his e-mail account. Matt advised Phil to (1) focus on dealing with only the e-mail messages from the last 2 weeks, and (2) put the rest of the messages in an archive folder to work on later (if he finds the time to.)

Finally, if the e-mail becomes more than Phil can handle, Matt says he could always file for e-mail bankruptcy.

Here are my two tips for keeping e-mail under control:

(1) Set yourself up for success.

  • For the love of God, consolidate your e-mail accounts. If you have more than one e-mail address, set up your system to receive ALL e-mail messages at one central account.
  • Create filters. How do they work? Filters will automatically label, archive or trash messages for you based on specific criteria you set. I use filters for managing my all newsletter subscriptions and listservs – basically anything that holds my general interest but does not require action. With filters, I can read newsletters and mailing list stuff whenever I have time (which isn’t very often!), and they stay out of my inbox, which I chiefly reserve for actionable items.
  • Set an intention for time spent working on e-mail. Decide before you sit down what your goals are. Do you want to address the most urgent messages and spend only 10 minutes doing so? If yes, then identify the urgent, actionable messages, reply and get out of there quickly. You must fight the urge to get sidetracked following YouTube links or reading forwarded jokes!
  • Unsubscribe from mailing lists, junk and newsletters as often as possible. It is worth your time to unsubscribe so you will not receive them ever again.

(2) Check e-mail the smart way.

  • Identify the action step inherent in each message. Tagging actionable messages with brightly colored tags (thanks Gmail!) such as “Do”, “Schedule”, “Read”, “Write Back ASAP”, “Write Back Later”, etc. will help you prioritize and clear your inbox much faster. For example, if you have three items labeled “Schedule”, you can take care of all three in one sitting the next time you have your calendar open.
  • Add specific tags to the messages you plan to archive but may need to find again later. The most useful tags refer specifically to the content of messages. Examples are “Blog ideas”, “Running group”, and “Recipes”.
  • Put off less urgent responses by writing a short note to the person such as, “Dear _______, Thank you for your message. I hope to get back to you next week with a thoughtful reply to your question.” Tag the message “Write Back Later”. Now you can put your energy into tackling the messages that require a more immediate response.
  • Archive messages immediately after taking action.

If you need more tips, I recommend checking out 43 folders’ Inbox Zero series.

Thoughts on this? Other ideas? Post a comment or write to Crystal and let her know!

Categories: Office and paperwork, Online organizing

Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. Hi Crystal,

    It would have been great to have you in my workshop – I always appreciate a fellow productivity buff’s feedback.

    I like how you’ve split the problem into two parts – setup and maintenance. My take on your points:

    o Filters: The only use I recommend is the ones you list: predictable non-actionable messages.

    o 10 minutes on most urgent messages: This is slippery. Yes, given the speed of the day, “checking” for urgent makes sense. The risk is that other non-urgent gets missed. Combine the former with daily emptying and I’d be happy :-)

    o Unsubscribe from mailing lists…: Definitely. An nice alternative is to move them into RSS. Lots of throwaway email tools out there that have RSS feeds for accounts.

    o Tagging actionable messages with tags…: I’ll differ with you on this. Using the inbox for tracking action is risky. In my workshop we talk about what the email inbox is for, and it takes people a while to remember… for collecting unread mail! Mixing it with other uses (action, reading, delegated work, …) is inefficient, and there are better tools for each use. My 2c.

    o Tag messages for retrieval: Alternatively you can use folders. I recommend creating one for each project you have going. I hadn’t thought about using tags for this. I use them because my account is in Gmail, which *only* supports tags. Works fine, though it’s a problem managing many tags, tags can’t be hierarchical, etc. Thanks for the nice idea.

    o Put off less urgent responses: This is essentially the Defer “D” (of the 5Ds) to use when processing incoming. The point is to decide action, create a reminder *outside* of email, and delete or archive the message. In GTD this involves adding “Reply to __’s email” to your Actions list. To find the original when the time comes to respond, use an “Action Support” tag/folder.

    o Write a short “get back to you soon” note: This is a great practice for those messages that will take more time or brainpower than you have when first processing the message. It’s in the general category of think about who is impacted by a decision, in this case the decision to defer and reply later. Nice one, Crystal.

    Thanks for the stimulating post. Cheers!

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