My Empty Inbox

I know many people, indeed it seems most, that have hundreds of emails in their inbox. In fact I’ve even seen example where people have so many that they even have unread emails interspersed.

Is yours like this? I know, you’re too busy. The emails come in and join the already endless list. It’s so daunting.

Let me share with you my approach.

My e-mail inbox is generally empty.

It’s not because I’m a Billy No Mates! I don’t have an aggressive Spam filter. Nor do I just blindly delete all my mail.

I check my mail very regularly during my working day and deal with every email straight away. I have analysis software on my email reader that tells me my average response time to emails is 1 hour and 13 minutes.

Now service is very important to me and part of my reputation that I value most. But that isn’t why my response time is so low or why I deal with my emails straight away.

No, it’s part of a more fundamental approach to running my business and indeed life.

I suppose the nearest recognised system I would my approach to is the Getting Things Done work-life management system originated by David Allen.

Now if this is all sounding a bit heavy, bear with me it’s not.

Fundamentally it is about removing clutter, be it on the desk, in your mailbox or most of all in your mind.

The last item may seem a bit airy fairy bit trust me it isn’t. Your mind is cluttered when you are trying to keep track of too many things, many of them often very minor, to be able to focus on what has to be done and when. I’ll maybe come back to this later or in another post.

Back to the mail box…

We all get junk mail, even with a Spam filter. Simple just delete it. Do it straight away, don’t leave it there to clutter up your inbox. Of course its isn’t all malicious Spam, but either way if you don’t want it and you don’t need to reply to it, just delete it. This takes seconds, less, and at a stroke will clear much of your clutter.

The next step involves a little preparation, but this only needs to be done once.

If you already have folders set up to group your mails by say, customer, then you’re already half way there.

Create new folders for each customer, finally add to these one called deferred and one called newsletters (you don’t need this last one if you’re not subscribed to any newsletters).

Now back to your mailbox again.

If you do get newsletters and there are any in your inbox, give them a quick scan and then either read them, delete them, or move them to the newsletters folder you created earlier.

Now we’re just left with “genuine” emails. Scan each one and deal with them appropriately. Really, very often, most of them can be dealt with there and then.

Maybe they’re just for you information. If so, job done, you’ve read it, now either move it to the customer’s folder if you need to keep a copy, or just delete it.

Maybe they require some action, if this will take less than five minutes (perhaps just a quick reply) juts do it. Again, job done, now you can also file or delete the email.

Perhaps the email requires more involved action, that can’t be dealt with straight away.

Now we come to one of the nice features of Outlook. Drag the email onto the Tasks bar, this will create a new task with a copy of the email in the task description. Now you can set start and due dates for this task, allowing you to plan ahead when you intend to deal with this emails action requirements. You can even set a reminder. The real trick here is to be realistic about when and how you intend to complete this action.

So now you’ve got yourself a task set up, possibly with a reminder, for this email. Just fire of a quick reply to the email saying that you will get back to them by whatever time you’ve decided and then file it in the appropriate folder.

Last ones are the ones that don’t require any action, nor need to be saved. Examples of these might be despatch notifications for things you’ve ordered online. You’ll want to keep these until the goods arrive (in case they don’t), but once the goods do arrive they can be deleted. Just move these to the deferred folder you created earlier.

So there you have it.

Welcome to the empty inbox.

This has turned out to be a rather longer post than I intended, but I do hope that you embrace the philosophy. Having an empty inbox really is quite liberating. In its self it won’t change your life but it is one less thing to have to think about.

Working this way does requires some self discipline and some ongoing maintenance but I suppose this was the real payoff for me in that it planted the seed of a whole way of working. More on that in another post…