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2 posts from August 2009

08/14/2009

Improving your relationship with your email inbox, part 4

Finally, I'd like to close out this series of posts with a few high level tips.

Hoard your attention

I said it before in part one, but it is vital that you take control over default settings that distract you. Start by turning off all audio and visual alerts that you have new mail. Of course you have new mail or you will shortly. Unless your job is purely to read email and then do nothing that takes longer than a minute in response to it, you shouldn't let your email flow dictate your day. If that is your job, your email is already open anyhow. Turn off the alerts.

Work on your priorities, not on what's freshest

Don't sit and press the "Check Mail" switch like a lab rat hoping to get a tasty food pellet. Yes, okay, you might get something you can answer quickly and scratch off your list, but that will not be as important as what is currently on the top of your to-do list. Do what you already spent time and energy deciding was most important. Dive in, knock out a task appropriate to your current resources and energy level, then surface and check email quickly before diving in again on the next prioritized task. By "quickly" I mean processing only. Anything that generates a new task for your list only needs the question asked: "Is this more important than what I was planning to do next?" If the answer is no, which it usually is, carry on as planned.

Merlin Mann said it beautifully: "Don't let the blur of movement try to replace one elegantly completed task."

Pay for checking email

If you find yourself checking mail far more often than actually results in a change in your plan of action, start forcing yourself to complete the next task on your list before you are allowed to check again. Quit the mail program if you need to keep yourself from autopiloting back into your inbox. The task list - whatever you use to track the next steps on your projects and other high priority work - is where you need to land whenever you're not sure what comes next.

Set a good example

As you want your email processing to be quick and prone to inspire clarity, so too do those who receive email from you. Write good email. Be brief. Use good subject lines; not "about next week's meeting" but "Tuesday 8/18 ABC meeting agenda & goals". As Mark Hurst suggests, "frontload" your messages to state the one key piece of information and then, if needed, support it.

You can find more great tips on writing effective email in these two articles by Merlin Mann:
Writing sensible email messages
Recap: Becoming an Email Ninja

08/03/2009

Improving your relationship with your email inbox, part 3

"All these best practices are well and good", I hear some of you crying, "but what do I do with this backlog of email clogging up my inbox?"

I assure you, you don't need to deal with all of it at once. You can get rid of it, and quickly, but you need to do just a few little steps.

1) Draw a line in the sand.
Create a label called "Old Inbox" and label every single thing older than 48 hours with that. Give it a color you dislike so you'll be motivated to get rid of that stuff. (If your mail program doesn't have labels, then you'll have to drag everything to a new folder called "Old Inbox" but you will need to be tough on yourself to keep dealing with its contents until it's empty).

2) Above the line, practice good inbox habits as described in my previous posts.
Get clean and clear on everything in the inbox that's newer than the "Old Inbox" label. Live above the line and use search to dig for things below it only if needed.

3) Just ten minutes at a time, knock the old stuff into shape.
Whenever you can spare the time, but at least once a day, set a timer (I recommend Minuteur for Mac users) for 10 minutes and process the old stuff. Do not let yourself get distracted in that time. It's just ten minutes; you can do this!

The best part? It turns out it doesn't actually take very long to get through the old stuff, even if you have hundreds or even thousands of "Old Inbox" messages. Make use of sort by sender or subject to help you knock categories of messages into the right place quickly.


Mastering your inbox will reduce your stress, help you focus your time on the most important actions, and give you the ability to respond thoughtfully when response is appropriate. The calm and control it creates can transform the way others perceive you, building trust and respect.