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07/01/2009

Improving your relationship with your email inbox, part 1

Is your inbox a source of despair? Fear not! You can conquer it and develop good habits which will reduce its negative impact on you in the future.

First, a few basic principles:

1. Discard the idea that every email you get deserves some of your time. Make a quick evaluation and then delete, do any less than 2 minute task, or add the appropriate task to your to-do list.

2. Be brief, if you need to answer at all. Not every email you get deserves to be answered with a correspondingly lengthy reply or, in many cases, any reply at all. Mail templates which you can use to auto-insert frequently used responses are huge time savers; learn how to do them in your mail program.

3. Don't file, archive. Mail programs have search functions; unless its a category where you regularly need to retrieve the last action on it (& you don't have that status in a more trusted system) or something that would be hard to capture in a search, just throw it in one big Archive folder.

4. Trash is your friend. Delete anything which requires no action on your part and isn't something you need to reference soon or in the future.

5. Give up your job as unnecessary archivist. If this email isn't the very first place you'd look for this information, don't save it for future reference. Put the information where you will look if it isn't already there.

6. Stop the distraction machine. Turn off ALL new mail alerts. No sounds, no counts, no pop-ups. Check email on your terms, as needed, and only between doing other actions.

7. Filter where possible. If you know that mail fitting a particular pattern belongs to a particular task - for example, email newsletters which fit within your recurring professional reading activities - then automatically route it to a folder for that task and remove its "unread mail" status on the way there, so that you aren't tempted to pay it more attention than it deserves. In your to-do's and/or calendar is where you'll track the need to do the recurring activity of examining those folders.

Finally, and most importantly:

8. Don't use your inbox as your to-do list. It is ill-suited to that purpose because it doesn't help you focus on doing. It is poor at distinguishing between things you want to pay attention to today and things you may not need to act on for days or even weeks. Think of your inbox instead as your hand, reaching out to someone passing you a piece of paper. You can glance at the paper to see if it's urgent, but what really needs to happen is not that you stand there with hundreds of pages in your hand, rather that you put the pages where they need to be. They represent actions you should do now or add to your to-do list or else they can be archived. A small percentage may need to spend time in an Active Project Support or Waiting For folder, but pretty much everything can be deleted or archived. 


In my next post, I'll share tips for quickly processing what's in your inbox so you know exactly what's there, if anything, and what commitments it represents when it isn't empty.

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