So it’s officially 2014. Frittering away the last week of december to create a slew of resolutions you may or may not keep just might just be the death of you. If you’re not sure how you’ll survive your list of self-improvements, here’s a tip to declutter and gain some productivity in both your personal and professional life.
Never heard of it? Think it sounds like some foreign strain of flu? Stay with me, because what I am about to tell you is a surefire way to not only keep your inbox (and sanity level) to a manageable level and, in some cases, add extra hours to your day.
If you get overrun with email madness on a daily basis like I do, you’ll come to the inevitable conclusion that you need to do more to process the incoming messages to your email account. Sure, you could be like a friend of mine who, every January 1st, deletes everything from his inbox regardless if it’s read or not. Sure this may work for a few folks, but it’s hardly the way a professional should conduct business. Fortunately I’ve been practicing Inbox Zero techniques for close to four years now and I’m happy to share three tips for success.
- Decide what’s important and what’s not. Commit to discarding (deleting) the mundane and come up with an action plan for the crucial. Emails you need (or want) to keep go into an archive folder. The simpler you keep your archive structure (the goal is one folder), the easier you can search within your email client to retrieve the email at a later date.
- Emails you take immediate action on should be discarded, emails you need to take action later should get a flag. This is one of the more important techniques I use on a daily basis. If I take immediate action on an email (reply, forward, etc), I delete it after I’ve “worked” it. Why? If the email turns into a conversation (email chain), most modern desktop and webmail clients are smart enough to sort emails by conversations. Plus, when you reply, the email is quoted below your reply so everything is self-contained when the email is sent back to you with a reply to your reply. For emails that can’t be worked right away, flag it in your client. Again, most clients will let you sort flagged emails so you can create a pseudo to-do list for yourself. Efficiency at its finest.
- Mail rules are your friend. I simply cannot preach this enough. There is no better way to keep your sanity through an onslaught of incoming emails than to auto-file them based on subject or sender. This is especially useful if you subscribe to a mailing list or project team that sends emails with a standard header or to a distribution list. Most clients will offer their own mail rules, but if your account offers the ability to use server-side mail rules, use those instead. That way, even if your email client is closed, your emails will still get sorted accordingly.
If you’re interested in learning more about advanced Inbox Zero techniques, you can pop over to Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders, where he has an entire series on practical Inbox Zero tips. I’ll admit that over the past few years, I’ve grokked the concept a little more each year, and I’m still learning new ways to reduce the time I spend processing email.
I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve learned enough to realize actual time gains – time spent doing other things. Things other than being an email slave.