Overcome by Email Avalanches
I never had to deal with the problem of having too much email until I landed my new writing job 8 months ago. Suddenly I had a whole avalanche of incoming messages to handle and a whole new culture to learn!
In the beginning I struggled to find the right balance of being on top of email and still having the focus and time to do my job. With most of my mornings spent replying to email and handling the administrative stuff that came out of it I found my work hours effectively cut in half – there had to be a better way to handle my email.
The First Step Towards Email Freedom
The first key came in Lifehacker’s Trusted Trio hack. The method is simple, keep only 3 folders in your email client:
To hold the emails with tasks that need to get done.
Everything else that’s just for reference’s sake or action emails that have been done gets stored in here.
A temporary holding folder for reference emails that might be needed in the next few days.
The end goal is to keep the inbox empty so you know you have everything you need to do or know processed and held in an easy to reference location.
This method really worked for me because I installed Google Desktop Search which integrates into Outlook. Anytime I wanted to look for an email I just used the search function which cut out any need to process my emails into folders.
I also had to deal with annoying new email notifications and this constant urge to check what was new in my emailing life – so I switched off my Outlook whenever I wasn’t using it and only checked my email twice a day, once before lunch and once in the afternoon. This really freed up my time to focus on my work instead of my email.
This method worked well for a time – but I noticed that stuff would still pile up in my Action folder and it still produced extra work and stress to look through that stuff. I pondered over it but couldn’t find a solution until…
The Big ‘Aha!’ Moment
I couldn’t sleep one night and started surfing online for a way to cut down my email processing time even more and make it even less stressful.
What I didn’t realize was that Lifehacker had already figured out the solution for me with its separate your email from your to-do’s post.
When I read it, the proverbial light-bulb lit up in my head.
Email is a sucky task manager. Email is a way to communicate, not a way to manage your time.
All emails must be converted to to-dos. Up till then, my Action folder had been useful, but it had really only been serving as a reminder folder. I still had to process what each email meant and the actions I had to take each time I looked through the Action folder.
After reading that article, I went through my Action folder and made a to-do item out of each and every one of them and then subsequently archived my emails. This gave me a clear inbox and clear action steps from my email.
How to Become an Inbox Ninja
I’ve been using this system for a while now and it’s been the most elegant solution thus far; reducing the time I spend on email and maximizing my productivity.
1) Aim to pare your inbox down to zero. Your inbox should be the place where new inputs come in, not where old inputs get clogged up. Process your email when it comes in.
2) Emails that need action on them need to become to-do items. Figure out what steps need to be done and put them on a to-do list. Don’t use your email as a reminder!
3) Process other emails to either ‘Archive’, ‘Follow-up’ or ‘Hold’. The ‘Follow-up’ folder serves in place of the old ‘Action’ folder, for emails that you need to follow-up on once the to-do has been done. I sometimes place emails in ‘Hold’ for stuff I don’t want to yet process and whittle them down later that day.
4) Refine the system. This means to continually find ways to cut down the unproductive time spent on email. For me, this meant unsubscribing to emailing lists I never read anyway, being ruthless with the junk email that comes my way and limiting the time I spend checking my email.
To become even more of an Inbox Ninja, Merlin Mann of the always excellent productivity blog 43Folders has a fun talk on ‘Inbox Zero’ explaining these principles in more detail: