How I Emptied My Email Inbox?

In the first part of the this blog post, I discussed the very real and growing problems that are a result of the increasing volume of email.  In this post, I will tell outline the simple process that I use to empty my email box each week.

The important thing to remember is that there is not one method that will work for everyone.  The way you use email for your work is a function of many things including your job function, your colleagues, your managers and customers or clients, therefore, the solution for emptying your email box on a regular basis will vary.

This is how I approach the task.

First, I scheduled one hour on my calendar at the end of each day– Monday through Thursday.  And I schedule two hours at the end of the day on Friday to deal with the backlog for the week.  This first step alone has multiple benefits and most people can do this.   Maybe you schedule time in the middle of the day or first thing in the morning.  Or perhaps, you schedule to blocks of time throughout the day.

Whichever way you choose, you will be more productive by focusing on the task of dealing with each email in your inbox.  As difficult as it might be to schedule a block of time on your calendar, the most difficult part will be to not look at your email throughout the day.  Don’t even glance at your inbox.  In fact, turn your email off, if possible.  The other benefit of this approach is that you will quickly learn how much time per day is required to process your email.  You might learn that one hour per day isn’t sufficient, so schedule more time.

The most revealing part of this approach is that for many people, sending/reading emails can consume an entire work day.  If the previous sentence applies to you, ask yourself two questions:

  1. is sending/receiving emails for an entire workday the best way for me achieve the top objectives for my job?
  2. would another approach be more efficient, more effective or produce additional benefits such as developing personal relationships with your colleagues?

Based on your own responses above, adjust your use of email accordingly.

At the scheduled time each day, I review my email box.  For me, most of my email (>90%) can be categorized into one of  five types.  For each category of email, there is a specific action to take.

  1. RESPOND –  Upon reading the email, I will immediately reply or forward the message if I can.  If I can’t respond, I will take the next action I need in order to reply.  Examples include make a phone call, schedule another appointment, find a file folder, etc.
  2. HOLD – For these types of email, I am waiting for someone else to reply or take action.  If I expect a response by Friday, I leave it in my Inbox.  If not, I add a note to my to do list or my calendar for a specific date in the future.
  3. FILE – These are the inbox-clogging messages that contains information you may need in the future.  These emails often include an attached document, a hyperlink, an address or information about a meeting such as time and location.  The key with this type of email is to file the important information in a place that you can find it when you need it.  I save attachments to the appropriate folder on my hard drive; I add hyperlinks to my browser bookmarks and tag them with key words including the name of the person who sent me the link; I add addresses to my contact list and information related to an appointment into my calendar. Once I’ve captured the important information, I delete the original email.  For any other emails that I want to save that don’t fit into any of the above, I move those to an email folder labeled “Reference”.
  4. SAVE – For the emails that are transaction-based such as hotel and travel confirmations, conference registrations, purchase receipts and electronic statements, I move all of these into my “Confirmations/Receipts” folder.
  5. AUTOMATE – For emails such as blogs posts, Twitter feeds, and electronic newsletters that I will read when I have the opportunity, I created an email rule that automatically moves these to a folder labeled “To Read”.

Here are some other general tips:

  • sort your Inbox by the From or Subject columns; you can immediately delete email threads where the entire discussion is captured in the most recent message;
  • if you combine your personal email and work email into one email client, create an email rule that automatically moves all messages forwarded from your personal address to its own folder.  Or better, don’t combine them to begin with;
  • don’t use too many folders for sorting; keep the buckets high-level and don’t use sub-folders; the search capabilities on most email clients are sufficient that you will find what you need;

Email is a powerful tool, however, it is not the right tool for managing your to do list or your projects.  Don’t fall into this trap.  There is a better way.

Read the related post: Why I Emptied My Email Inbox?

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