Monday, February 24, 2014


Since the beginning of the year, I’ve had several days out of the office preparing for the arrival of and then enjoying my new son. Additionally, I’ve been working in a satellite office without internet connectivity. While I’ve tried to stay on top of my email on my phone, checking, and more importantly, deleting emails have taken a backseat to changing diapers.

As a result, I sit looking at an email inbox with 804 items in it, most read, but some not. I feel anxious frustrated by it. Some of you will say, “what’s the big deal? I’ve got 5 times that number in my inbox and not all of them are marked as read.”

I’m anxious about it because that is the biggest that number has been in more than three years. Typically, if I have more than 20 items in my inbox, I start getting antsy. To have 804 is downright scary for me.

See, email can quickly overwhelm us. We sign up for so many listservs and get a lot of unsolicited email, that the important stuff can get buried. Emails about court deadlines are sandwiched between that bar newsletter you keep meaning to get to and the reminder that the office potluck is on Thursday. Every moment we devote to reading the garbage and wading through it to find the important stuff takes away from actually doing real work.

A couple years ago, I read about inbox zero, and I try to adhere to some of it’s principles. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I encourage you to check it out here. I use a modified form that works for me.

I try to touch any given email only once if at all possible. If I skim the email and it is nothing I'm interested in, I hit the delete key right then. Why keep garbage? I am confident that 85% of the items in my inbox fall into this category. I'm ruthless with the delete key. If it was truly something important, there will likely be a follow up email, and I can always retrieve it from the trash can later if necessary.

If the email is something I can respond to in two minutes or less, I respond to it immediately and put it in the appropriate folder, if one exists. Best to get these tasks out of the way immediately.

If upon skimming the email there is no clear call for action, but it is something that I want to maybe read later, I move it to a folder I have labeled "Rainy Day Reading". This is for things I find interesting but aren't at the top of my priority list. More importantly, I have an auto delete policy in place. Anything in the folder that is more than 30 days old is automatically deleted. If I haven't gotten to it in 30 days, it must not have been that interesting. A lot of emails not immediately deleted wind up in this folder. And it is amazing how few are actually read later and just get deleted automatically.

Now we are down to that 5% of emails that I actually have to do something with. If they can't be done in two minutes and it is not so urgent that I have to stop what I'm doing now, they get flagged and I assign a due date for them. This way they show up in my Outlook task list. Then, they get moved to the "To Do" folder.

This doesn't have to be a time consuming process. I will set myself a time limit of 20 minutes this afternoon to clear out my inbox. This will be more than enough time to quickly sort the wheat from the chaff. Knowing I can't linger on emails helps me to be more liberal with the delete key, which really is the appropriate response for most email.

In this way, my inbox remains empty. I try to empty it before the end of every day, and am going to get back on that horse. If you've never experienced it, seeing an empty inbox is very satisfying. I also find that I am less stressed as a result. 

I highly encourage you to get your email under control. Whatever system you use, you will find the rewards to be great. And you will be happy that email no longer rules your day.

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