Managing email inbox chaos
My four tips to achieve the mythical inbox zero
This post was originally posted to Medium.com on November 21, 2017.
Working in a software development company, I receive hundreds of emails per day. Some require I do something, some are just FYIs like a status update, and others are company-wide discussion threads like items for sale or best Seattle restaurants. I’ve had to learn coping mechanisms to manage the chaos, respond efficiently, and be effective in my role without spending day and night replying to emails. I’m excited to share my four tips to take control of your inbox.
Take an immediate action on every email
Archive with only one folder
Filter every email unless you’re on the “To” line
Centralize your task list outside your inbox
1. Take an immediate action on every email
When you read an email, you are putting forth effort and time. For some emails, the effort involved may be low, just a few brain cells while you scan the email for a couple seconds, while others may require more thorough consideration to understand the contents of the email. Time spent could be anywhere from half a second scanning to several minutes reading. Regardless, every email does take you time and effort. If you do not take an immediate action, you have to invest more time and effort later when you reread the email. Taking an immediate action means reducing your effort later of re-reading that email and having to take an action on it later.
For every email I receive, I take one of four actions:
Archive it if I may need it later.
Delete it if I never need it again (such as “thanks for your help” type emails).
Reply and then archive or delete it. You don’t have to hit send immediately but write your response immediately. If it takes less than five minutes to reply, do it immediately. Otherwise…
Put it in your to-do list and out of your inbox. For me, I forward emails to Evernote, where I store my to-do list, and then archive it.
Every email I make a snap judgment on one of the four actions. Realistically, this doesn’t always happen. As I write this, I have seven emails in my inbox. Occasionally, I leave an active thread in my inbox for a short period of time before archiving it. This happens when either I’m waiting to see if someone else replies before I respond, or if I’m considering what my next action will be.
It’s not always that we need to do more but rather that we need to focus on less. — Nathan W. Morris
2. Archive your email with only one folder
Two years ago, I managed my saved emails in separate folders for different projects or tasks. At the time, I assumed that would make it easier for me to locate the email later on. It didn’t. “One day I switched to just a single “Archive” folder. I setup a keyboard shortcut (control+a) to archive emails without needing to dragging every email to a folder. When I need to find an old email, I search my Archive folder. I’ve found it easy to locate emails this way without first thinking of which folder an email may be in. Instead, I navigate to my Archive folder, type in some keywords like who is included in the email and the email topic, and voilà! There is the email I am looking for.
Save yourself the time and effort; just use one archive folder.
3. Filter every email unless you are on the To line.
Two years ago I setup a new inbox filter to move every email to a “process later” folder unless I am on the “To” line. Any emails I get from BCC, an email group, or I’m on the CC line are filtered out of my inbox. I’ve found 99% of the time I am not on the “To” line, the email is likely an FYI, not requiring my response or attention. This means every email in this folder I can quickly read before either deleting or archiving it. It’s a folder I check multiple times a day in case something important landed in there, but this rarely happens.
I have a few other folders I’ll filter specific email groups to like our company-wide design threads, team JIRA tickets to another folder, and so forth. I’ve also set up filters to auto-delete emails I keep getting but never need to see or read. For example, our internal JIRA tool sent me emails every time I made a comment. I don’t need to read those. I know I just posted on the ticket. So I have a filter that deletes these.
Look out for repeated moments occupying your time and attention. Then, create strategies to reduce or eliminate those unnecessary emails from your life.
4. Centralize your task list outside your inbox
This is the downfall of many attempts at maintaining inbox zero. You cannot manage your email chaos and achieve the mythical inbox zero if your inbox is your task list. Likely, you have a task list in addition to this list of emails. Keeping emails in your inbox as to-dos means you need to remember the priority of those tasks in addition to your other tasks outside your inbox. How do you prioritize? How do you visualize which is more urgent? You’ll have to utilize your active memory to store that information, distracting from other information like a complex problem you are solving. The Getting Things Done (GTD) system suggests organizing your action items in a central place.
I have two suggestions how to get your to-dos out of your inbox:
Start a separate email folder of “To do” or “To follow up on” to get these types of emails out of your inbox. Some people use inbox flags, though I don’t believe this solves for the centralized task list I mentioned before.
Add the task from your email wherever you keep your to-dos. Then archive or delete it. If you need to respond to the email later, start an empty draft you can find in your Drafts folder in the future.
I use a version of GTD for Evernote. I have a folder for “Action Pending” and tags like 1-Now, 2-Next, 3-Soon, 4-Later, 5-Someday, and 6-Waiting. When I get an email that requires me to take an action, I forward it to Evernote and archive the email. Once a day I go through untagged Action Pending notes and assign them a priority in my to-dos. This helps me prioritize my email task among any other tasks I have to manage. For more on GTD+Evernote, I recommend reading The Secret Weapon (free PDF).
Thanks for reading. What are your tips for maintaining email inbox chaos? I would love to hear from you.