What does it take to clear email clutter and keep a clean inbox?
Whether it is a page of physical or electronic paper, the time management experts tell us that to be efficient we need to work toward handling items once rather than coming back to the same things over and over. I used to put a dot in the corner of a sheet of paper every time I touched it to see how I was doing. That got a bit discouraging. I finally just threw everything on my desk away and lit a match.
Probably not a good idea for you or me.
Even if email isn’t your favorite way to communicate, a lot of important business shows up in your inbox. Some of your best customers and friends do prefer email for getting things done and maintaining relationships. Some of the messages that hit your inbox really do matter to you professionally and personally.
Most email programs have helpful tools to block spam (and designated relatives) and to direct requested promotional emails and certain kinds of repetitive messages to “smart folders.” That helps, but if you’re like me, you still have a ton of email messages that come through and have to be dealt with manually – no matter how smart those folders are.
If you’re like me you also hate to see the messages stack up – and might be tempted to procrastinate or ignore important messages even more.
But clearing the clutter is not an impossible task. Just remember four letters to see a clean, manageable inbox today.
T is for TRASH
Like magazines, catalogs, and coupons in days gone by, I am tempted to hold on to messages that I might want to “get to” later. Be realistic. If it’s an oil change special, another one will show up when you need it. Hit delete. If it’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard, there are two ways to act on it – read on – but otherwise, trash it. There will be a whole slew of funny jokes again tomorrow. And kitten videos. And inspirational videos. If you aren’t going to act on it now, get rid of it.
R is for REFER
If work colleagues, family, friends, and special lists you keep need to receive the message, simply hit forward with appropriate (short) comment and then trash it. What if you want to come back to it? You can find it in your sent folder without cluttering your inbox.
A is for ACT
Does someone need single piece of information? Send it now. Is there an event invite? Put it on your calendar and RSVP or decline. Did a friend get a big promotion? Send a quick congrats right now. If these calls to action are interrupting something important you are working on now, you shouldn’t have been looking at email anyway. Your bigger issue may be learning when to check your email – and just as importantly, when not to. You might need to schedule two blocks of time in the morning and two in the afternoon when you are “allowed” to look at the inbox in order to stay on task. This is particularly important for me on “writing days” – when the going gets tough it’s easy to look for justifiable distractions.
F is for FILE
Do you get articles related to your industry that you want or need to refer back to? Set up a specific file folder for these items in your email manager. Like to hold receipts? Ditto. Jokes? Yep. If you have several big active projects that are generating a lot of information and calls to action, segment those messages by dragging them into temporary folders – which you will delete when the project is done.
If you’ve got hundreds of unread messages, there is a good chance you can start with the letter T and trash a bunch of them right now. A clean inbox will save you from missing messages that really matter.