Everyday more than 210 billion email messages are sent. I’m sure you, like me, receive more than your fair share of them. This blog post is about how to deal with email more effectively.

Just as you wouldn’t leave your in-tray to pile up with messages, articles to read and things to do, why would you leave your emails piling up in your inbox?

Emptying your inbox every day stops it from stacking up higher and lets you focus on more important work.

1. Start with an empty inbox

The inbox should be a temporary holding bin for unprocessed messages. An inbox full of messages does not let you prioritise what’s important or to allow you in the most appropriate context. For example meetings should be in the calendar, a task in the task list and a project file in the appropriate folder.

Furthermore, an empty inbox is a great psychological boost. It makes you feel in control and that everything is in it’s place. This post introduces a simple 3 folder system to take control of your e-mail and ensures that every single message you receive is both searchable and actionable without cluttering your inbox.

2. The Action Folder

This is e-mail that contains your actionable items. It contains the e-mails from your boss asking you to do the quarterly report or your long lost friend asking you to get back in touch. All of these items in this folder should cross link to your task list.

3. The Waiting For Folder

This is the folder where you are either waiting for a response from someone or something else needs to happen before you delete it i.e. confirmation of your Amazon order being shipped.

4. The Archive Folder

Most email you receive is stuff you don’t need right now, but you might want to look at later. Archive these messages. The Archive folder is your email reference library.

The Archive is one single folder with no sub folders. Whilst this is a different approach to David Allen’s Getting Things Done it is much quicker as you don’t have to decide which message should go in which folder.

I label my folders @Action, @Waiting @ZArchive, so that the folders appear after the main inbox folder.

5. Process your Messages

Now that the 3 folders are in place, it’s time to process your inbox. Start with the oldest email in your inbox then do the following:

  • Delete it if you don’t need it.
  • Respond to it if it only needs a quick response then archive it or delete it
  • If it requires an action which takes more than 2 minutes, then put it in the @Action folder and add the task to your task list.
  • If it’s something you’re waiting for. Then put it in the @Waiting folder. If it’s something which is time sensitive such as a colleague promising you a response by Friday, put it in your calendar as well.
  • If it’s just an information message which you may want to refer to later, move it to the @Zarchive

Continue until the inbox is completely empty.

Never leave a read email in your inbox”

6. Keep your inbox empty

After you’ve emptied your inbox, keep it that way, repeating the process 2-3 times per day. Use your calendar and schedule time for e-mail at (say) 11am, 2pm and 4pm. Resist checking email outside of these times as you’ll become a slave to your email.

7. Follow up

The key to being more productive is to ensure that once you file items in the @Action or @Waiting is not just to leave them there. Keep checking regularly that you have nothing outstanding, and once a week schedule some time with yourself (say a Friday) Make sure that you review.

Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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Post based on articles in Lifehacker by Gina Trapani and Getting Things Done.

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