Email can eat us alive. Here are some pointers to manage the inbox, based on my daily practice, rather than ideal “best” practices.
- I believe in “inbox zero.” Right now, my inbox is empty. My first step when I look at my inbox is to decide a destination for a message before acting on it. The options are:
- Move to folder “Priority A” if the message requires a response – More below about what happens to those.
- Move to folder “Priority B” if the message doesn’t require a response, but requires review or action on my part soon (within a week).
- Move to a “category” folder if the message is something I will refer to in the near future (over the next month or two).
- Move to “Old-Stuff-to-Sort-Someday” if I likely won’t ever need it, but it’s from an actual human being or other entity that I’m not ready to delete. I’m a pack rat. I don’t archive. There are 3300 messages in that folder. This is not a best practice, but I never worry if I’ve deleted something accidentally.
- Delete if it’s clearly junk. Note: I do not consider personal messages from vendors “junk.” I always respond to them. They go into “Priority A”. They are human beings who deserve a “no” from me, so they can clear me from their mental bandwidth and focus on others.
- Priority A emails get a same-day response, if possible. I commit to responding to emails within 4 business hours, if possible, with a 24-hour response as the minimum acceptable window. If I’m in meetings or traveling or training all day, I’ll work to send a message like “I’m occupied today, and will give this full attention by Thursday end of business.” That way, I’ve let them know I’ve gotten their message, and given myself a deadline on giving them the attention they deserve. Right now, there are 7 messages in Priority A – my goal is to take that to zero within 4 hours, because I’m in the office today. I wait for a good stopping point in a project to attend to the Priority A folder. For example, once I’m done with the rough draft of this blog, I’ll attend to them.
- Priority B messages are reviewed a couple times per week, and that review takes about 5 minutes. Some messages get moved to a category folder for reference, or moved to Priority A if it’s getting close to a project benchmark or other timely issue.
- I should review the category folders and delete or archive on occasion, but I don’t. I have a large hard drive.
- I should only check email 3 times per day, like the experts say, but I have it up all the time, with the exception of what I call “radical mono-tasking project immersions.” I will, however, not allow too much distraction; I don’t check every time it chirps at me. And, when I do look at it, it’s just to take 15-30 seconds to shove messages in the appropriate folders.
The way I do email these days helps me stay on top of it, while not letting it suck me in to constant distraction. And, because my literal inbox is constantly “zero,” while my figurative inbox (Priority A) is “zero” by the end of the day, I’m never overwhelmed.
Feel free to share your email pointers in the comments below.