Managing Your E-mail Inbox

I tweeted earlier today that I managed to achieve “Inbox Zero” (an empty e-mail inbox) while at a major industry conference (I’m in Spain for VMworld EMEA). A follower on Twitter asked if I would share my “inbox secret”. It’s not a secret, really, but I thought I’d share it here just in case others are interested in trying to emulate a similar methodology (or are just interested in getting control of your e-mail inbox).

First, you’ll need some infrastructure:

  • Get yourself some sort of “to do” system. I don’t care if you use Getting Things Done (GTD), or just make notes in a plain text file—but find a system and use it. I mean, really USE it. Be ruthless in putting your actions (tasks, “to do’s”) in the system. Personally, I use OmniFocus, but ultimately you’ll need to find the right tool that works for you.

  • Determine an archiving strategy. In other words, what are you going to do with e-mails that have information you might need later, but don’t represent something you need to do? There are a variety of strategies here; some people have a complex hierarchy of folders while others just dump all their messages into one big archival folder. Personally, I use a time-based approach—I archive messages I might need later into an annual folder. So, I have folders for 2012, 2011, 2010, etc., all the way back to 2004.

  • (Optional, but recommended) Find an automation tool. What do I mean by “an automation tool”? You’re looking for some sort of macro/scripting tool that can help streamline common tasks for you. Simply creating (or customizing) some keyboard shortcuts within your e-mail application might be sufficient. Personally, I use AppleScript and a tool called FastScripts to allow me to execute those scripts via application-specific or global keyboard shortcuts.

Once you’ve accomplished those three tasks, then we get to the actual work of managing your inbox. Here’s how it works. For every message that comes into your inbox, one of four things happens (this is your DECISION TREE):

  1. If the message represents something you can do and get done in just a few minutes (a quick reply or an action you can complete), do it and then delete or archive the message.
  2. If the message represents something that will take some additional time (a more lengthy reply or an action/series of actions that will take time to complete), create a task/”to do” entry in your system and then delete or archive the message.
  3. If the message represents something that is not an action but contains information you might need later, archive it.
  4. If the message doesn’t match any of the above rules, delete it.

It’s really a simple system, but it requires discipline. You have to school yourself not to use your inbox as a task/”to do” system—that’s why you find/use a system. And finding an automation tool (as I suggested) helping remove friction or resistance to the system by making it easier to archive messages or create task/”to do” actions. For example, using FastScripts, I have a single keyboard shortcut (Ctrl-Cmd-A) to archive a message to the current year’s archive folder. So, when I’m done with a message in my Inbox—after I’ve responded or created an action—I can archive it with a quick keyboard shortcut.

Hopefully some of this information helps. Feel free to speak up with additional tips, suggestions, or questions in the comments below.

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  1. Colin Westwater’s avatar

    Microsoft (don’t laugh) have a pretty good Outlook Best practices document which covers this and lots of other useful tips:

  2. Brian Windle’s avatar

    Well said, took me a few years but the rules you have stated work. IFF If and only if you stick to it

  3. Forbes Guthrie’s avatar

    Great advice Scott. Here are a few things I (try to) do:

    - First decision is “Is it actionable?”. If it isn’t I dump in all in one archive folder. I don’t need to decide whether to keep it or delete, and don’t try to file that stuff in a folder. This is what search tools are for, and searches work better if everything is in one folder. Mailbox storage is cheap.

    - With only two decision questions (Is it actionable?, and if so, Should I deal with it now?), I try to decide these outcomes within the first couple of sentences. Don’t read the entire email to decide you want to deal with it later – you’ll just need to re-read the whole thing when you come to do it. If it’s just information or trash, then archive it. You can’t, and you shouldn’t try to, read everything even if it’s interesting. (If you do need to read it and absorb it, then that is a task and is actionable). Keeping a clean inbox is about “processing” email appropriately and quickly. By not reading everything you’ll have time to action what you need to, and read what is relevant at the time.

    (Great email writing tip – if you need to get your point across in an email, particularly if you want someone to do something about it, put the crux of the info/action it in the first sentence and subject header!

    - Unless you are in an operational role where your response to emails is expected immediately, keep your inbox closed most of the day. Try to open it only a few times a day, or every hour if you must. You will regain hours of work-time every week this way. Humans are incredibly inefficient multi-taskers. Losing your flow every 5 minutes to half-read a new email subject destroys your thought process. If you think you receive too much email or are over-worked (who doesn’t, eh?) try closing your inbox. We need focus to achieve stuff. Only open it when you have set some time aside to process your inbox (process, not read/action them).



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