Many people I talk to have become slaves to their email. When the subject comes up, I’ve become more irritating than the ex-smoker that just can’t stop extolling the virtues of kicking the habit. Unfortunately, my advice on cleaning up one’s inbox is heeded just about as much the above mentioned ex-smoker’s advice on smoking cessation. Therefore, I’m just going to keep my mouth shut the next time someone complains about the 300+ emails they receive daily and gently point them to this post. By the way, talking about email overload in social situations is generally frowned upon anyway.

This problem is so pervasive that there is no shortage of information out there on how to unburden one’s self of email bloat. No matter how one looks at it, there are two major steps that need to be undertaken by anyone that wants to manage their email rather than having their email manage them: 1) Empty your Inbox(s) and 2) Keep it/them that way.

As with many things, the first step is usually the most daunting. Some of my associates have upwards of 3,000 messages in their inbox. The thought of having to go through all of those is enough to discourage any sane person from starting the task. There are several ways to attack this problem, the brute force method of committing the better part of a weekend to reading and dealing with each message will work, but it could take a very long time. The other extreme is to highlight everything in the inbox and delete it. The thought here is that if it was really important, whomever sent the email will send it again. The ideal solution probably lies somewhere between these two extremes. 43 Folders has an excellent series on getting to zero in which a couple methods of house cleaning are presented.

After one’s inbox is cleaned, the task at hand is how to manage the oncoming wave of new email. The steps I have taken to manage this are not novel in any way, but they are quite effective. In the past year, my inbox has never contained more than 50 or so messages. This is the high water mark that usually comes after some time off. Normally, I’m looking at no more than 10 or 15 at any given time. This is the result of several tactics:

  1. Set up a few folders to help manage incoming mail. Don’t go crazy here, otherwise, a lot of time will be spent deciding which folder to put a message into. I have the following set up:
    • @Action – Items that will be dealt with later. Everything in this folder has a corresponding task in the task list. This is double entry, but I found that things got lost if I did not enter something in the task list. The action that must be taken on messages varies quite widely, so having a task in the appropriate context in a list really helps.
    • @Hold4Meeting – Temporary holding spot for meeting information that will be referenced later and then archived or deleted. I get lots of meeting agendas and other bits that are only useful in a future (scheduled) meeting.
    • Approved – Holds purchases that have approved via email. When the invoice comes later, I can easily find the approvals and ensure that what was purchased was approved.
    • @Waiting – All of the emails waiting for a response.
    • CC/Group – Any email that was not sent directly to me. These are of much lower importance to me. I don’t look at these emails all the time, maybe just twice a day. Most of these emails are informational only anyway.
    • Accepted Meeting Requests – All affirmative replies to Outlook meeting request that I have sent. I usually delete these once a day.
    • Archive – All of the email being saved long term for some reason. Many people warn against setting up complex hierarchies in the archive. While I agree with them, I must confess that my archive is more complicated than it needs to be. One of these days, I’ll flatten it out. I totally agree with them, I have only one archive folder now and use Google Desktop to search.
  2. Set up some rules to help manage incoming mail automatically. This is where the magic really happens. I have set up the following rules:
    • Trasho – Automatically move incoming message to the trash that are never read. This includes a few senders that I can’t seem to stop getting email from (none of these senders are people by the way): Old mailing lists, system messages, etc. If you find that you are continually deleting email from a certain sender without reading it, save yourself some time in the future and add that sender to this list.
    • Approvals – When I approve a purchase via email, I add “<APPROVED>” to the subject line in the reply and BCC myself. This rule moves all incoming mail from me with “<APPROVED>” in the subject line to the Approved folder. This rule must go before the “Waiting” rule below, otherwise nothing will ever end up in the Approved folder.
    • To ArchiveWhen I want a copy of a reply I am making sent to the archive folder automatically, I add “<2ARCH>” to the subject line and BCC myself. This rule will move all email from me with “<2ARCH>” in the subject line to the archive folder and mark it as read.
    • Waiting – When I send an email to someone and expect a response, I BCC myself. This rule moves all incoming mail from me to the @Waiting folder.
    • Accepted Meetings – Move accepted meeting requests to the appropriate folder. Look for “Accepted:” in the subject line. I leave the declined ones in the inbox so I can deal with them. The accepted ones could probably just go into the trash, but I like to look at the briefly before I trash them since people will occasionally write something in the response.
    • CC – Move all email not sent to me directly to the CC/Group folder.
  3. Turn off all email notifications. The cute swishing and ringing sounds are the shackles that bind us all to email. Turn them all off: The sounds, the popups and yes, the little envelop in the system tray. You decide when you are going to process your email, not anyone or anything that might have decided to send you a message. Your attention is important and you can not afford to be distracted by such things.
  4. Process mail like you mean it. With notifications turned off, you will only process mail when you are ready to really work on the task. Do it a few times a day and use the 2 minute rule (if it is going to take less than two minutes, deal with it immediately). You’ll need to decide how often you need to process email. Some people can do it three times a day, some will need to do it more often. When you process your inbox, start at the newest message and process it down to nothing. Looking at the newest message first will prevent responding to an email that is no longer relevant. If you don’t have time to deal with a given email for some reason, jam it into the @Action folder and add a task for it.
  5. Don’t use email as a procrastination tool. This is important! Chances are, there are better things to do than play with emails. Even if your inbox is super clean, it is easy to put off other tasks and answer emails, or something. Look to your task lists for things to do, don’t hide in your inbox.

As I said before, these are not novel ideas. They are a combination of methods I have seen elsewhere and trial and error. The 43 Folders inbox zero series is probably the best, single source for this stuff that I have seen. What works for me won’t work for everyone, not without some tweaking anyway. These tips should be a good start for anyone facing an overflowing inbox though.

Update 2007-03-14: Added the “To Archive” rule and edited the bit about having a flat email archive.

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