Some time ago, a colleague and I collaborated on the following article after chatting about organizational skills at a conference. Some folks have asked me about it so here it is!
The inbox game. Every professional knows the struggle.
You wake up, roll over, grab your phone, and see your inbox has exploded. 30 new emails since you last checked. If you’re like most people that means your inbox total is now 1,230.
Or if you only have access to your email from your work computer, you might arrive at work and spend the first 2 hours every Monday digging out from the mess.
Well, what if we told you there is a different way? A way that you can begin to control your work habits through reducing your inbox clutter?
In some ways it’s almost like reaching down and touching the line during a series of sprints--you know there’s more coming, but for that one second, the feeling of accomplishment is enough.
Email is a communication tool, not a task management tool.
This is one of the most difficult principles for folks to get a handle on. Some of us remember the chh-chh-choo of AOL sign-ons when email was a novelty. But, at some point along the way--either in school or in or adult life, we began to use email to manage our numerous and complicated tasks and responsibilities. Hence, we feel overwhelmed with an inbox crammed full of requests, to-do items and follow-ups. How many of us have signed into our email only to feel a sense of panic at what stands before us?
Yet, essentially, email is a communication tool. We exchange information and ideas about requests, to-dos and follow-ups and this happens constantly, instantaneously. When we truly begin to grapple with the fundamental reason why email exists, we can finally put to rest all that inbox clutter. Creative and organized task lists, a well used calendar, bullet journals and spreadsheets are several appropriate tools for task management. Quickly transfer tasks from emails to these other to-do oriented formats. This also helps separate the wheat from the chaff and when it comes to sorting and getting rid of emails and this is crucial to keeping the inbox clear. Again, extract pertinent task-oriented content from the inbox and then file away or delete the impertinent commentary or unhelpful information.
2. Respond if needed then delete it or file it
At the end of the day, when we’re staring at those 2000 read emails in our inbox, we have one basic decision to make; delete it or file it. Well, that’s not entirely true....we can keep it where it is, right?! This basic decision causes so much consternation for many email users, yet this is one of the core reasons why we feel so out of sorts with our email.
First, here are some basic questions to help you get started with the “delete it” dillema:
Question A. Is the email essentially junk? If yes, delete it. It almost goes without saying, but believe it or not many folks do not get rid of junk the moment it arrives. Delete it immediately! If you are debating on whether something is junk, delete it! Remember, when in doubt, throw it out! Many of us would never consider becoming hoarders in real life, but when it comes to our inbox, all bets are off. Break the cycle.
Question B. Will I ever correspond with this person ever again in my lifetime? If the answer is truly no, delete it. If they’re that interested in you and what you do, they will email you back.
Question C. Is the email essentially informational with no request for a follow up? If the answer is yes, and you have no time or interest in the information, delete it. This one is a bit tricky, but also critical to feeling less email crazed (see also principle 4 below).
Let’s provide an example related to this specific question.
You love softball. Play it every week and live and breathe the sport. It’s a hectic time for you, and you have no expendable income and no plans during the year to do anything out of the ordinary. An email arrives letting you know that a 4 week soccer camp will begin in 6 months in a town about 8 hours’ drive from your home. Most people (who love soccer) will sit on an email like this for weeks and let it fester. Knowing your plans, priorities and limitations will help you move past this stumbling block. Remember, this email is making no request of you, you have no expendable income, the drive and or flight is not convenient, and you resolved not to do anything out of the ordinary for the year. Delete it or forward it to your soccer buddy who lives in the town mentioned and then delete it. “You never know” is one of the worst email traps. “You never know I may like to do this sometime”…”You never know I could follow up on this someday”. Trust your gut- you do know! Delete those judgment-clouders and move on. If this is particularly painful, you can always put a reminder on your calendar for the event the next time it comes around. Perhaps with a little forewarning you’ll be better able to plan for it the next time around!
3. Rely on others, focus on yourself
Throughout our lives, relying on others is one of the hardest things to do. Independence is cherished and we almost see it as a weakness to rely on other people or depend on them for assistance or reminders. This principle is not about shirking duty or passing the buck, but recognizing that many of the people that we correspond with via email are responsible and hard-working just like ourselves. If you are emailing a person who tends to be responsible, outgoing, proactive and on top of things let them handle a task, if the ball is in their court. File their correspondence away with confidence and should they need you again, they will email you back. Make a note on your task list to “check-in” or “keep the project on the radar” but don’t leave the email chain in your inbox as a reminder. It will only make you more anxious. How does this help inbox insanity? It allows you to freely let go and file emails not tied to tasks or responsibilities that you do not have control over.
The second part of this principle, focus on yourself. Too often, email sucks up our time because we are too busy worrying about what other people are doing. An example, someone writes an email that interest rates are set at 6.25% when in actuality they are at 6.24% and we use precious time and energy to correspond with everyone involved to thoroughly explain and correct the inaccuracy. Unless these little blunders adversely affect real outcomes, let them go. Other times, we will spend 20 minutes drafting a shakespearean-quality email to let someone know how they missed a deadline or hurt someone’s feelings or were excluded from a major corporate decision, when a 2 minute chat on the phone or in person would suffice. When it comes to email, focus on yourself, and have these types of discussions face-to-face, on the phone or not at all. Oftentimes, the not at all option, although the most difficult is the best choice.
4. Unsubscribe is not a dirty word
Remember last year when that mom unsubscribed to her reiki tips emails and was charged by the group and found guilty by a jury of her peers? No? Of course this didn't happened because it never will! Unsubscribe whenever possible or feasible. Naturally, there are some subscriptions that make sense or are a real passion for readers, but most of the time they clog up our inbox. Setting up a subscription folder or file is another great way to clear an inbox. If you're not ready to take the plunge and unsubscribe, at least move these types of emails into a separate, quarantined “subscriptions” folder.
If you’re subscribed to a lot of different emails that you just like to “keep on the radar” for personal or professional reasons, be realistic in how much you are able to read and absorb from all of those subscriptions. Some busy days might not be the day you can read the emails from 5 similar organizations. More will come, delete the ones you don’t have time to read today. Letting them hang out in your inbox until you have time to dedicate to reading them is unrealistic and unnecessary. If you don’t have time to read an email that’s not that important to you today, chances are, it won’t suddenly become more important tomorrow.
5. Folders are essential, make them right for you
There are no hard and fast rules about folders but here are some general thoughts about what makes them essential and useful. First and foremost they are a necessity. If you're really serious about clearing your inbox you need to get serious about setting up a personalized email folder system. One common pitfall is that folder descriptions and naming becomes way too detailed. The knee-jerk reaction is to create extremely specific folders to make emails more accessible and easy to find. Often the result is 1000 emails in 950 folders which at the end of the day really does not make our email lives easier but actually more cluttered. Think about general themes or broad-brush topics when setting up email folders. Instead of creating an “Emails from Santa Clause related to the pony for my daughter” folder, try “Christmas Emails” or “Holidays Related” or even “Family Related”. This can make transferring emails from the inbox to the folder more streamlined and less complicated. Also, another tip is to rename folders if need be. If you set up a “grants” folder and find that 50 out of 100 of the emails in the folder are actually related to corporate giving, you may wish to rename the folder to something more generic such as “fundraising related” or just “fundraising”. There are also times when you realize too late that emails originally lumped together should have had their own distinct folder. Though it can be tricky to figure out, try to separate these emails and create distinct folders more aligned to their general themes. Another principle is to be consistent. If you are setting up work-related folders, start with a common format or word such as “Geese LLC Personnel” “Geese LLC Taxes and Government Forms” Geese LLC Customer Feedback”. Unless you are extremely organized and detail oriented, avoid dates and numbering systems when it comes to folder setup. Remember, if email is truly a communication tool, organize it similar to how you would communicate with someone in person. We typically do not start conversations off by stating which year or month we started communicating with someone. On the contrary, we chat with people about projects, themes and topics. Keep this in mind while creating and organizing your email folders. Finally, for many people, sub-folders create another layer of email disorganization that can get out of control. Focusing on general themes and topics can help alleviate the urge to create numerous sub-folders that you need to get out of with a trail of digital breadcrumbs.
6. Limit flags, urgents, follow up symbols and stars
Raise your hand if you lead a busy life and have multiple urgent tasks and responsibilities pressing down on you from week to week. Welcome to the club. The point of this principle is that if everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. If you open your inbox and 700 out of 800 emails are starred or flagged, how are you really prioritizing your communications? Better yet, how are you translating those stars and flags into meaningful task-oriented action steps? Flags and stars can be distracting and reinforce bad habits such as procrastination. If you insist on using these tools, use with extreme caution or set a rule that items will not be starred or flagged for more than a certain period of time. Truly urgent tasks should be appearing in your task management system--calendar, list, etc.
7. Running water, a healthy diet and exercise and “email check-ins” are essential
It may seem counterintuitive, but if properly performed, checking email consistently and systematically can actually lessen screen time. The old adage of it’s easier to stay on top of things than play catch-up applies here. Oftentimes, checking email, organizing communications, deleting or filing, and jotting down tasks consistently throughout each day is better than spending multiple hours plowing through emails after extended periods of time. In our opinion, it’s simply better to check email regularly and consistently, at least every hour during intense periods of correspondence.
8. Email search is your friend
One of the most common arguments for keeping emails and not clearing the inbox is that emails will get lost and or once they get filed away they will be out of sight and out of mind. Yet, this is the case anyway with individuals with hundreds of emails in their inbox. What about folks who like to keep 20, 30, 40 emails in their inbox at a time? If this works for you and you are able to stay on top of communications, great. However, remember how wonderful you felt when you reached that milestone of keeping 50 or less emails in your inbox? We promise that same feeling of satisfaction will intensify when you're down to 5, 3, 1 or 0 emails in your inbox on a daily basis. Another frustration is limited search performance and the trouble folks have when the time arrives to find an email buried in files and folders. Again, this issue can be addressed by extrapolating tasks from communications so that one does not need to go back in time for a “to-do refresher”. There are occasions when we need to refer to emails to remind us of a task at hand or there may have been original stipulations or explanations related to a particular duty. Try to become familiar with how your email search feature works in order to quickly find these emails. If it does not function quickly and efficiently you may need to try a new email system. Also, remember to search within folders too and this can help you track down important communications.
9. Follow up on emails quickly and decisively
This is an easy thing to do, correct? Not always, and it takes a bit of practice to implement this tip. Let’s pretend we open our email and there are 10 unopened messages. Before opening email #1, scan the 10 titles and delete the low hanging fruit. If the title clearly indicates it’s junk, delete it. If 4 out of the 10 are junk quickly delete the 4 right away leaving 6. Of the 6 let’s pretend 4 are definitely something you need to read and 2 are announcements/subscriptions. Open the two announcements/subscriptions and file away quickly if no follow up is required. This leaves you with 4 emails that you're pretty sure you need to focus on. Read them carefully but quickly, glean from them what action(s) you need to take, note these actions in your task management tool (spreadsheet, bullet journal, task list etc.) then file them in an appropriate email folder. What if you need to email the person back and respond to a request? If the response or request is simple, do it quickly and decisively. For example, your brother emails to ask if you would like icecream for dessert when you visit next weekend. “Yes that would be great! Thanks!” send-file-done. Don’t make uncomplicated emails complicated. But what if the response requires more thinking and planning? Make a note in your task management tool that the email needs to be followed up on. For example, a colleague named Sally wants you to email her your thoughts about a major initiative at work. This is going to take time and perhaps some research and a response cannot be sent right away obviously. Your task list may note “email Sally your thoughts about initiative X before April”. Consequently, filing Sally’s initial email away is not such a big deal because you have already noted what needs to be accomplished in your tasks list. Finding her original message becomes less of a priority or concern. If Sally changes her mind about something its on her to communicate to you how your duties may change (See principle 3 above).
10. Read or do not read, there is no try
If an email is worth reading, read it. If it’s not worth reading delete or file it. Many folks feel more crazed when they half-read double the amount of emails instead of seriously paying attention to a fewer amount. Carefully read worthwhile communications and decide courses of action as soon as you can. Re-reading often helps to clarify what action steps are required. Bottom line, “trying” to get to those 150 unopened emails reinforces clutter, contributes to putting off decisions about the email (see #2 above), and allows really important emails to get lost in the shuffle. Another pitfall to avoid is storing numerous unopened emails. Get clear of this trap and remove the “unopened cue” for your sanity’s sake!
11. Keep contacts organized and up to date
Keeping contacts organized and up to date is crucial. Learn how your contact manager works and use it frequently. If someone changes their email or name, update this change immediately. If you keep a separate notepad or electronic device to organize contacts, keep this up-to-date as new information comes in via email. Though tempting, email communications are really not an effective way to keep track of people. How many times have you hunted and pecked through countless emails to find someone’s email, name or address? If you say often, sifting through 1500 emails in your inbox will probably not help the situation. We tend to communicate with people based on similar interests, projects, or events we are attending. Thematic email folders and files can help you track down individuals that have not yet been added to your contact manager, notepad, electronic device or dare we say rolodex.
12. You cannot break email
You may think you can break your own email and cause havoc by clicking here or there or changing settings but you cannot break a phantom account. Set up a fake email account, perhaps with the same email service you currently use or one you're looking to transition to, and play around with it! Try to break it! Click on settings and practice setting up folders and run searches. You may need to have friends or family email this practice account to get things started. Not happy with how it works? Delete it and create another account or move on to a different service. Be sure not to use one of your favorite names for this phantom account in case it’s needed for the real thing once you're ready to move forward. Practice, practice, practice until you become an empty inbox pro. Once you feel you’ve “got it” transition to your real account and go from there.
Are you a member of the empty inbox club? Post a comment about how you keep your email inbox empty.
About the authors: Jason Illari (PA) and Lindsey Baker (MD) work and advocate for museums in the U.S. and have taken an interest in how administrators of small non-profit organizations organize priorities with limited time and resources.