Managing the flood of e-mail messages that most of us need to interact with on a daily basis is a growing challenge. Use the simplest approach you can get by with. Your process has to be so basic and almost automatic that you will maintain it even when you don't feel like doing it. Here are some basic procedures that can help you manage your emails more effectively and efficiently:
- Use the DELETE key! Deleting everything that we don't' really need, as we encounter it, is crucial to managing the flood. When in doubt, throw it out. If you've let emails pile up, purging is the first thing to do. Sometimes it is easier to clean house by clicking the "From" button which will sort them by their source - you can often dump several at a time that way.
- File! Use a simple storage system for stuff you want to keep as archives and support information. If you're a "when in doubt, keep it" person, that's fine, but don't have it clogging up your in-basket. Make reference folders in your navigator bar and file those kinds of emails over there. Avoid using nested folders that you have to click open to find the file. One simple alpha-sorted list - by topic, theme, or person - is usually sufficient and easier to deal with on the run.
- Complete the less-than-2-minute ones! Anything you can deal with in less than two minutes, if you're ever going to do it at all, should be done the first time you see it. It takes longer to read it, close it, open it, and read it again than it would to finish it the first time it appears.
- Organize emails that require action and follow-up! If you've deleted, filed, and finished your less-than-two-minute emails, you're left with only two kinds: (1) those that require more than two minutes to deal with and (2) those that represent something you're waiting on from others. A simple and quick way to get control is to create two more folders in your navigator bar - "Action" and "Waiting For" and file them accordingly. These folders should be visually distinct from your reference folders and should sit at the top of your folder list, which can be accomplished by making them all caps with a prefix punctuation like the '@' symbol or a hyphen (whichever will sort the folders to the top). Some use AA as a prefix to get these folders to the top of the pile - e.g. "AA Action", "AA Waiting For".
You must consistently review actionable emails. Once you get your in-basket to zero, it will feel fantastic. But you can't ignore the batch of ACTION emails you've organized. If you're not reviewing them regularly enough, they will start to gnaw on your psyche, creating even more avoidance and bad feelings. People leave emails in their in-basket for the same reason they pile things on their desk, thinking, "If it's in front of me, I won't lose or forget it." Just as people have learned to accept commute time as dues they pay to live and work where they'd prefer, you must integrate the time and energy to deal with email into your life and work style.
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