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5 steps to emptying your e-mail inbox

by Alex in | |

You could get to inbox zero the way you probably have countless times before, by working your way through that pile one message at a time. That can be very time-consuming, and it also misses the great opportunity that an overflowing inbox provides: the opportunity to identify the message sources and message types that lead to e-mail or information overload. Today, you’re going to begin the job of processing your inbox in a way that actually reduces the volume of messages that come to your inbox in the future.

Reducing the volume of e-mail that comes to your inbox is absolutely crucial to changing charge of your life and career. If you’re anything like me — or most people I know — your volume of e-mail goes way beyond what you can process on a daily basis. With all the focus on spam control, we’ve missed a larger challenge: many of us now receive more non-spam e-mail than we can (or should) handle. This leads to one of two possible problems:

  1. We stay on top of our incoming e-mail by spending so much time on e-mail processing that it displaces other higher value activities. Those other activities might include communications activities with a higher profile or reach (like blogging or tweeting), professional activities with a greater tangible impact (like meeting with colleagues in person, or reading the latest publications in your field) or personal activities that do more to recharge and reconnect you (like having dinner with a friend, or watching a movie with your kids).
  2. We limit our total time spent on e-mail in order to make room for other activities, but without making systematic decisions about which e-mails we will or won’t respond to. As a result, we handle less than 100% of our inbox every 24 hours (often much less), and high-priority e-mails fall between the cracks.

If you want to exercise a reasonable degree of intention in how you spend your personal and professional time, you have to set limits on how much e-mail to process. And you have to do it in a structured way that ensures your e-mail time goes to the messages that have the highest priority and value. In other words, by focussing on your un-missable e-mail.

What’s an un-missable e-mail? That is up to you to define. But here’s how I define it:

  • A message sent only to me from someone inside my organization (i.e. nobody else is in the “to” field)
  • A message sent to me from someone inside my organization, and marked urgent
  • A message sent to me (i.e. not cced) from someone outside of my organization
  • A message that is not an e-newsletter

The goal of your inbox processing this week is to not only catch up on the e-mail that has piled up in your inbox, but to do it in a way that reshapes your incoming e-mail flow so that from now on, your inbox only receives un-missable e-mails. Today you’ll get underway on that processing, and you’ll set up a workflow that will turn the ongoing job of e-mail processing into an activity that continually addresses not only the messages in your inbox but the ongoing and inevitable problem of eliminating extraneous e-mail. To that end, keep one question front and centre as you’re processing your e-mail:

Was this an e-mail I needed to see the day it arrived?

Every time you answer “no” to this question, you need to make an adjustment in your e-mail system to ensure that future messages like that one will not hit your inbox.

Here’s how to process your e-mail so that it sets you up for a manageable inbox:

Step 1. Set your daily processing target.

We’ve got five days left to reach inboz zero, so write down the number of e-mails currently in your inbox, and divide by 5. The result (x) it is the number of e-mails you would have to process each day so that your inbox is empty in 5 days — if you literally don’t get a single new e-mail. But even with your auto-responder, you’ll probably get a handful of e-mails to process each day. So take a moment to write down your targets now (I’ll show you mine):

  • Day 1: Current number of e-mails – x = 239-48 =5
  • Day 2: Current number of e-mails – 2x = 143
  • Day 3: Current number of e-mails – 3x = 95
  • Day 4: Current number of e-mails – 4x = 47
  • Day 5: Current number of e-mails – 5x = 0

Write down your target number you should reach by the end of each of the next 5 days so that you can hit your target each day.

Step 2. Set up your “system needed” folders.

It takes time and thought to set up the folders, rules and systems that keep missable messages from hitting your inbox and that gets actionable items into your task list as quickly as possible. Rather than slow down the job of processing your e-mail, we will set aside any e-mail that calls for a longer-term solution by setting up three folders where you will put any message that fails the test of “Was this an e-mail I needed to see the day it arrived?”

  1. Unsubscribe needed: You’ll use this folder for any message you receive that comes from an e-mail list or marketer you don’t want to hear from. Look for an “unsubscribe” link in any newsletter you don’t want to receive, and try to unsubscribe as you’re doing your initial e-mail cull; but if the unsubscribe link is hard to find or doesn’t work, stick the unwanted newsletter in this folder for now.
  2. Filters needed: You’ll use this folder for any message that didn’t need to hit your inbox, but which you’d still want to file. Tomorrow’s post will talk about how to set up folders/labels and filters (rules) that keep these messages from going to your inbox, but still keep them available.
  3. Workflow needed: You’ll use this folder for messages you need to see, but which you think you could process in a more efficient way (for example, by sending them straight to your to-do list) or which you don’t need to process on a same-day basis. I’ll write another post that looks at alternative workflows so that you can find a better (i.e. non-inbox-cluttering) way of handling task assignments or application notifications.

Once you’ve got your e-mail management system set up, you can hang onto these folders and use them whenever you’re rushing through the job of e-mail processing; however it’s best to create your filters and rules as you go. If you keep using these folders, be sure to set a regular time (once a week or once a month) to go through these “system needed” folders and put new rules in place.

Step 3. Set up your project, archive and reference folders.

SIM folder contains multiple=

These are the folders where you file any e-mail you want to keep for future reference in an organized place. In my case, I keep all my sent mail — and my sent mail quotes any incoming e-mail it responds to — so I only need to manually file e-mails that have an attachment I want to hang onto, contain important information I need to find in a specific place (like a project update) or which I haven’t replied to but want to keep for future reference.

You may already have a system for filing e-mail, but here’s a quick summary of how my e-mail filing is set up:

  • SIM: A folder for all my work related to the SIM Centre, with subfolders set up for specific internal and external projects, as well as a couple of folders set up to track correspondence with specific colleagues.
  • Clients and Projects: A folder for all my writing, Social Signal and personal projects. Each client or project has its own subfolder, and I also have an “Archive” subfolder where I file folders for projects that are no longer active.
  • Reference: A few subfolders for e-mails that aren’t related to any specific client or project, but which I want to hang onto. I have just three subfolders: “Testimonials”, “Personal” and “Research”.

At a minimum, I recommend setting up:

  • A folder for active projects, with subfolders for each current project. If you have a couple of different jobs or wear a few different hats, you may want a separate Projects folder for each of these gigs/roles.
  • An archive folder with subfolders for older projects or other archived material.
  • A reference folder for e-mails you won’t want to delete but don’t belong to a project.

You’ll set up some additional folders once we get to setting up filters, but these should get you started.

Step 4: Sort your inbox by sender.

It’s much easier to identify recurring patterns if you’ve got your e-mail sorted by sender. You can’t do this in Gmail itself, so you’ll need to use your local e-mail client (Mail.app, Outlook, Thunderbird etc.)

Step 5: Scan and file until you reach today’s target.

Here’s what to look for, and how to handle them:

  1. Messages you’ve replied to that you can quickly delete. Before you delete any of them, ask yourself: Was this an e-mail I needed to see the day it arrived?
    • If the answer was no, file the message in “filters needed”.
    • If the answer was yes, but it was a notification or task assignment from a web application (e.g . a Basecamp notification or a blog comment notification), place it in “workflow needed”.
    • If the answer was yes, and that message is JUST the kind of thing you want to see, then feel free to delete it (or file it in one of your project, archive or reference folders).
  2. Blocks of recurring messages (e.g. blog comment notifications, e-newsletters, Basecamp notifications). Aim to file any recurring message type in one of your three “system needed” folders: unsubscribe, filters or workflow. For example, I discovered that all my blog comment notifications are coming to my inbox, and while I don’t want to leave a comment unapproved, I think I can come up with a more efficient system for managing my comment queue, so I’ve put these in “workflow needed”.

    E-mail inbox contains a backlog of comment notifications from Disqus.

    This backlog of notifications from Disqus, which I use to manage my blog's comment queue, just screams for a better workflow.

  3. People or organizations you never want to hear from. These should go in unsubscribe (if the message is from a list) or “filters needed”.  If you’re not sure whether to file something in “unsubscribe”, “filters” or “workflow”, don’t worry about it — just stick it in “filters” for now.

If your scan-and-file is going quickly, you can overshoot today’s target. You’ll be glad to be a bit ahead of the game when you get back to work tomorrow and start setting up your e-mail filters.

First posted on December 27,2010

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