At the rate we get email these days, there is only one way to stay ahead of it: empty your in-box every day-perhaps even several times a day. If you do, you won’t drop important actions, you won’t waste as much time, and most importantly, you will feel marvelous. And with the right approach, it is not that hard to do!
Why an Empty Inbox?
Why am I such a strong proponent of keeping the email in-box clean? Well, the email in-box was designed to play the role of receiving email, not the role of a bulk filing system, and not the role of a task management system. Yet we try to use it all those ways, and that leads to problems.
A cluttered in-box represents a congestion of unattended responsibilities, responsibilities that weigh on your mind. Emptying the inbox every day relieves that congestion-and mental weight-in a very noticeable way. It also makes you more efficient, because without clearing your in-box, you’ll be constantly glancing through old mail in search of passed over to do’s and unfiled information. It saves you time and reduces mental distraction because it allows you to clearly delineate between the mail that needs further processing and mail that you no longer need to review.
Why is My In-box Always Overflowing?
The reason our in-boxes get so full is not just that we get too much mail to read.
You see, the real problem is not with reading email but rather with doing email. Reading spam or unneeded cc’d mail (colleague spam) is not what bogs down our ability to get through the in-box; while those are annoying, jumping over or deleting those takes only seconds. No, it’s the relevant email that bogs us down. Reacting to meaningful email, with potential actions for us to do, is what makes us skid off track-it kills a huge chunk of our day! The trouble is that we don’t have a natural way to prioritize our reactions to mail like this; instead we try to do it all, and our in-box and workday spin out of control.
Solution: Convert Emails to Tasks
The solution to this problem is to do this: don’t take significant actions on emails when you first read them (unless truly urgent or truly quick). Instead, put those actions on your to-do list, and continue to read or scan to the bottom of your new email. Then work tasks off your to-do list, not out of your in-box.
If you use Microsoft Outlook, this is especially simple, as that software includes easy ways to convert emails to tasks. Those new tasks even include the text and attachments from the email-you’ll never need to search for the original email.
With Tasks “Handled” You Can Now File Your E-mail
And here is the most important point. Conversion to tasks removes the unattended responsibilities from your in-box since now all your email actions will be in a place where you can track and manage them appropriately: your prioritized to-do list. With email tasks all managed, you can now finally file and empty your inbox. You’re no longer hanging on to unreconciled email requests-such mail actually locks your in-box, so set it free! Once tasks are managed, all mail in your in-box is purely informational and can now be dismissed. Once this is a habit, you’ll be able to empty your in-box daily.
The Best and Easiest Way to File Mail
Next, if you truly are going to empty your in-box every day, then you are going to need a very easy and very fast way to file mail, and here it is: after reading mail and extracting tasks, drag everything into one single folder!
“What?” you may say. “Wait, I need to file my mail by topics! I need to identify it, classify it, and subdivide it! Otherwise how will I find my mail later?”
Well, in the past, topic filing may have been the way to go, but these days a full text search engine is all you really need.
Full Search Really Is All Most People Need
Full text searching is what I mainly use, and I assert that it will work for nearly all your needs as well.
I find that when using a high-quality indexed full-text search engine (as is built into most webmail, like Gmail, and built into later versions of Outlook), I can normally find mail within a few keyword attempts. Due to the indexing, the searches are blindingly fast, and so I can cycle through a number of different search terms quite quickly. I have never needed to spend more than a minute or so searching for mail this way. In fact, I usually find the item in just a matter of seconds.
And simply dragging mail to one folder saves a ton of time that you would normally spend on selectively filing by topic. And let’s face it, half the time when you file by topic you cannot find it anyway!
Rule of Thumb
That said, there are some industries or professions that really do need topic-based filing. Legal firms, for example, often need a way to definitively show the entire collection of email associated with a given client or case, and so a simple search may not be the way to go; they need the assurances of a topic-based filing system.
This leads me to a rule of thumb on the few times I feel topic-based filing is required, versus when a full-text search approach on bulk mail is adequate. Perhaps this rule will help you. If you ever feel you’ll need to retrieve and display exhaustively all email associated with a given topic, then use a topic approach. You might need to do this, say, to transfer a collection of mail to someone else or to another server. However, if your intention is just to be able to find individual emails or related emails (the need most of us have), then I recommend you do not waste the time it takes to file email by topic. I’d rather see you save that time, file quickly in bulk, and rely on the full-text search at search time. You can gain quite a bit of time back in your workday this way, with no loss of control.
Get Started Today
So get started today. How? First, start converting e-mails to tasks so you stop trying to use the in-box as a task manager-this will unlock your in-box. Next, create a single filing folder (I call mine the Processed Mail folder), and, after extracting tasks, move all read email into it. If you do these two simple things, you will enjoy the bliss of an empty in-box and be smiling from ear to ear!