I have dealt with a lot of email over the past decade. In graduate school, we lived and died by email, both as students and TAs. Entire semesters of coursework would sit in my inbox for weeks at a time.
When I worked in a Congressional office, the staff would literally process and respond to thousands of emails every day collectively. My inbox would see hundreds of new emails a day, easily, most of which required a response.
I get fewer emails today than in years past, but I still get far more emails a day than I care to read. As someone who works from home, I rely heavily on my email. Email is my primary method of contact with co-workers throughout the day. If my email is disorganized and too many messages sit in my inbox, I start to miss tasks and information and then a domino effect follows.
No matter what you do – small business owner, stay-at-home parent, consultant, freelancer – you probably rely heavily on your email too. Or at least have insurance and the city utility company sending you notices that you shouldn’t miss.
I was in line the other day when the woman at the cash register next to me showed the cashier her inbox … I think she had something like 11,000 emails in there. None of us should be receiving (or staring at) this sheer amount of correspondence.
A system is totally necessary for my peace of mind and effective work-flow, which overflows into my ability to be fully present with my kids and husband when I’ve checked out of work. I bet a system would help you be a little less stressed and a little more effective too.
So let’s talk about email for a second.
(I’ll credit my husband in part for this post. He’s been at Inbox Zero since…forever. Since he was in middle school, probably. He’s ridiculously organized when it comes to email. And even though none of the rest of us can actually achieve that, it’s hard to live with someone as organized as him without a few habits rubbing off. His system convinced me to get some control over my inbox several years ago, which in turn inspired this post.)
Whether you have 1000 emails in your inbox or 11k, it’s TOO MANY. Picture your inbox as a physical box. In your house. It should have – a few pieces of mail in it. Not thousands.
Think of it this way: email is a system that provides you with information that you act upon. It’s not some elaborate lazy filing system (guilty! Haven’t we all treated our inboxes that way?)
First, I’ll give you my quick system for *keeping* my inbox under control. Then I’ll give you a few more quick pointers for getting yours in line.
- If my inbox has more than one page of emails, there are too many. Once there are too many, I block out time to process, delete, file, etc., until I’m back down to one page. Is zero emails realistic? Maybe not. But one page should be. My gmail has 50 emails on a page. There’s no reason I need more than 50 emails in a “current” state at any one time. If there are more than that, it just means I’m way behind and need to spend some time knocking out tasks.
- Someone (maybe Michael Hyatt?) once write that you should only touch an email one time. Although I don’t *always* abide by this rule (I’ll note the exception below), I try to do this for most of my emails. First of all, most of your email is junk. Do you really want to give your time and energy to junk email? I don’t. Touching each (most) email once helps me save A TON of time. When an email comes in, I open it (or read the subject line). If it takes less than 3 minutes to process, I do one of three things (exception below):
- Delete immediately.
- FILE (more details on this below).
- Add to an active to-do list AND THEN DELETE. Just following those simple steps should help you immediately take back some control over your inbox.
- About that exception above. I’ve organized my email settings so that my work emails and personal all come to one inbox. Some people function better with several inboxes but I can only manage one with any sanity. Some of my work emails require more than one touch. Sometimes I’m waiting on a response or a status update or need another team member to respond before I can execute a step. Regardless, these, personal actual correspondence, and emails that take more than a few minutes to process are basically the only emails that are allowed to sit in my inbox (and really, if I followed step #4, that shouldn’t be happening much either) until a scheduled regular daily (or several times a week) time when I sit down and tackle them. NOTHING should sit in your inbox indefinitely.
- Remember Step #2 above, where I talked about filing? Make files for your archives. Some of mine are things like “Photos of the Kids that I need to print” or “Trip to Cancun.” I have individual files for various clients whose emails I need to still access. I also have a file where I dump all of my “read this when I get time or while I watch Netflix” (I highly highly recommend this kind of file – a “non-crucial but I’ll get to it eventually” pile. Then you can actually get to it eventually without constantly weeding through it.). Even for those random emails that you kind of want to read but don’t have time, but might later – HAVE A FILE.
- Remember Step #3 above? Never ever go through your email without your to-do list and your calendar. As you delete, write down tasks and appointments. Need to follow up on something, produce something, schedule something? Most of us use our inbox as a sort of loose “to-get-to” list. Folks, this won’t work. If it doesn’t go onto the calendar or turn into an actual task to execute with a deadline, it’s not going to happen. If it’s not one of these and it doesn’t go into your “read later” file, then delete it.
That’s it! That’s how I keep my email under control.
Ok. But what about those 11k emails in your inbox right now? How do you even start?
- First, start with the new emails. Don’t tackle the old.
- Create 4 or 5 basic folders to begin – “Work,” “Friends,” etc. Once an email is on your to-do list or calendar, archive it in the correct folder or delete it.
- Touch every email that comes in today ONCE. Get it on your to-do list and delete. When in doubt, unsubscribe.
- Did I mention unsubscribe? All of those lists, ads, promotionals – unless you literally wake up excited to see that email in your inbox, unsubscribe.
- Do this with every NEW email that comes to your inbox this week. Then slowly start working your way backwards.
Do you feel less overwhelmed yet? You should! If you are still experiencing email paralysis, there’s hope. I’m working on a list of 100 ways to escape email paralysis. As soon as it’s completed, I’ll send it your way – just provide your email here.
Inspired and ready to simplify other areas in your life? Start with this collection of posts.