How to Manage Your Email Inbox

I recently stumbled across a method of managing my email that actually works. It's so simple and effective that I can't believe no one ever showed it to me before.

Now, in the blink of an eye, I can easily reference any reply I'm waiting on, remind myself of the important tasks requiring my attention, and look up that good restaurant my buddy told me about but I can't remember what it's called. All the while, I don't have to sift through a cluttered inbox each time I log in.

I discovered it while reading David Allen's influential book, Getting Things Done, and haven't looked back since. 

David sums up the rationale for his suggested system with the following observation:

Most people use their email “in” for staging still-undecided actionable things and reference, a practice that rapidly numbs the mind: they know they’ve got to reassess everything EVERY TIME they glance at the screen. If you never had more than a screenful of emails, this approach might be reasonably functional, but with the volume most professionals are dealing with these days, that doesn’t apply.
— David Allen

Given that I had 2,056 messages "marked as unread" at the time of reading his book, I couldn't agree more. And wow, has my brain had so much more room to breathe since taking control of my inbox for the first time ever.

"I'm too busy" is a profoundly bogus excuse for not responding to an email. "Too busy" is really just another way of saying "I've been disorganized, lazy, a procrastinator, or all three." And in today's day and age, when we're more flooded than ever by emails pouring into our inboxes, it's of even greater importance that we learn to get a handle on them. It will help us be more respectful to those around us, and, perhaps most importantly, we'll each experience more psychic bandwidth than ever before.

Let's get right to it.
 

1. Create Three Folders: @ACTION , @WAITING FOR, and @STORAGE.

Yes, all of your emails can be organized by three simple folders.

The @ACTION will hold all the emails that you need to do something about.

The @WAITING FOR will contain any email that you care about tracking. It could be a task you delegate to someone else, or a request/question you're waiting to hear back on. This will make it super easy to quickly reference emails you're waiting on a reply for, and, if necessary, to check in on the slackers who are taking forever to get back to you.

The @STORAGE will house everything else. Yes, everything. You can make sub-folders within the main storage folder if you wish (I made four), but there's no need to get to crazy with them. With how robust the search features within email platforms have become, it's relatively painless to locate specific emails by performing a quick global search across the inbox using a few key words.

(The "@" symbol ensures that the folders are moved to the top of your folders list. You could also use something like "1-Action" if you wanted to do it that way.)
 

2. Get To Inbox Zero

The first time you do this it may take a while, but once you get there, it's totally worth it. As Allen points out, "It requires much less energy to maintain email at a zero base than at a thousand base."

So, browse through your last few weeks of emails, and find any "important" emails that you haven't yet taken action on. (I put "important" in quotation marks because if they were really as important as you say they are, you'd have taken care of them by now.)

It might be an email from an old friend, a question from a co-worker that you still need to make a decision on, an invitation to a party you haven't replied to, whatever.

Put all of those in the @ACTION folder.

Then, if there are any emails for which you're still waiting on a reply, put those in the @WAITING FOR folder.

Finally, take all of your other emails and dump them into the the @STORAGE folder.


3. Take Care Of All The @ACTION Items

You may need to set aside an entire morning, afternoon, or even a day to do this, depending on how high you let this pile build. I don't care. Just take care of them, and do so pronto. It's extremely important to get these out of the way while you already have the momentum going.


4. Moving forward, perform the following actions every time you check your email:

1. DELETE any emails that can be deleted. Promotional emails, spam, newsletters you're subscribed to, etc.

2. Put in @STORAGE any emails that you want to keep for reference but don't need to act on.

3. This is the most important one: TAKE CARE OF any emails that require less than two minutes of your time. It could be forwarding a question/task to the appropriate person, or confirming a meeting time, or moving something into the @WAITING FOR folder. You get the idea.

4. Put in @ACTION any of the emails that a) require more than two minutes of your time, and b) you won't be able to get to at this very moment.

Here's what my email screen currently looks like after doing this today:

No emails in the box, and three in the @ACTION folder.

No emails in the box, and three in the @ACTION folder.


5. Some final tips and tricks:

A) When you receive an email, take action immediately. One of the reasons so many people are terrible with email responses is because they read an email, and then decide "Nah, not now, I'll reply later." But then, they don't. This problem is compounded by the fact that nearly everyone checks email on their mobile phones when they're not in a position, physically or mentally, to send a reply: in their car, while making breakfast, walking down the sidewalk, etc. 

B) If you can't reply within 48 hours, at least give the person the courtesy of a quick email back that says something like, "Hey, got your email. Just wanted to let you know I received it, but this week is an incredibly busy period for me so I won't be able to properly think about it for a few days. You can expect a reply from me by Tuesday of next week."

C) Unsubscribe from all those newsletters and promotional emails that you never read anymore, but yet, for some unknown reason, you still allow them to invade your personal space. Get rid of them.

D) Consider Boomerang for Gmail. It's an incredible tool for scheduling emails to be sent later at a specified time, or for setting reminders for yourself.

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The process detailed above will not only make more sense, but will also benefit you further, if you read Allen's book, Getting Things Done. Check it out and apply the principles within. You won't regret it.