I saw my friend, Laura, at the coffee shop this morning, and in our brief hey-how’s-it-going conversation we had at the counter she told me about how she just spent an hour trying to deal with all her email, and about how much she struggles with trying to stay on top of email.
This is the third time this week that the email thing has come up in casual conversation with friends. So I thought I’d write this post to help anyone who struggles with email. I used to struggle with it as much as everyone else until I figured out a good system.
First, the mindset. I could skip right to the technical how-to, but your underlying attitude about email has to change if you want these new habits to stick. Here’s what has to change in your brain, first:
1. Realize that your inbox is a very nicely organized space for other people’s agendas. If you don’t have any sort of task management system, your inbox might be the only automatically organized, easy to follow system that you look at every day. It looks like a to-do list. But your mailbox outside your front door isn’t a to-do list. It is, just like your email inbox, full of requests from people (bills to pay, mostly!). Yet, you don’t open up your physical letters and then stuff them back in, and then wake up every morning and look at them all again, and stuff them back in again, this time with more letters added to the pile.
You want to keep your inbox empty as much as possible. You want it’s natural state to be empty, and when it starts to fill up with email, you know it will be empty again soon. Once you experience the clear headedness that comes from an empty inbox, you’ll be addicted.
2. Value your own time enough to not tolerate constant interruptions (the ones that you have control over, anyway). Turn off notifications. Turn of the auditory notifications: the beeps, dings, bells, buzzes. Turn off the visual notifications: the badge or any other sort of visual thing that you let interrupt you.
3. Never start your day with email. At least give yourself 30 minutes right when you wake up before you open your email. That way you’re training your brain to put your own priorities first, rather than reacting to everyone else’s priorities.
I stay away from my email until I finish my whole morning routine. I won’t get into my morning routine here. That could be a whole other blog post. For now, just think about something important you can do first thing in the morning before you check email.
Now, the technical stuff.
First, take 2 minutes to set-up the following two things…
1. Set up 2 Folders: “Archive” Folder and “Receipts” Folder – These are the only two folders I use. I’ll explain how I use them in a minute, but first just create two folders with these names.
2. Get a pen and a piece of paper. You can get fancy with a task management system if you want, but pen and paper is all you need.
Okay, so now you have an inbox full of email, a couple empty folders created (one called ARCHIVE, the other called RECEIPTS). You’re ready to go through the process I use to manage my email. I do this once a week.
MY 3 STEP WEEKLY EMAIL PROCESS
- DO SOMETHING!
Note: If you have thousands of emails, this could take a while. I’d get a coffee and put on some music first. Once you’re doing this on a weekly basis, it should only take about 30 minutes.
1. TRASH Go to the bottom of your inbox where the oldest emails are lingering. You’re going to start at the bottom and work your way to the top, deleting any emails that are obviously trash. Just the obvious ones. If you have to think about whether or not it’s trash for more than 5 seconds, skip it and we’ll deal with it in the next step.
2. ARCHIVE Now you’ve cleared out all the trash. Whatever’s left is stuff you feel like you need to hold on to. Again we’re going to start at the bottom and work our way up. Starting with the email right at the bottom, ask this question of each email:
Do I need to do anything about this?
If the answer is NO, put it in the archive folder.
If the answer is YES, just leave it there and we’ll deal with it in the next step.
Note: Some people have a million folders along the sidebar in their email. Ones for different jobs, people, places. Some are totally outdated. It seemed like a useful idea at the time, a way of organizing your email. But really, when you need to search for an old email, do you open the folder you think it’s in? Or do you just type in the search box at the top? Get into the habit of keeping ONE archive folder. It’s all searchable. If you have a million folders in that sidebar, merge them all into your new “archive” folder. One folder to rule them all.
The extra step I take here is to put receipts in a separate RECEIPTS folder. This is the one additional folder I find useful. When it’s tax time, you can print out all the receipts from this folder and you don’t need to do any extra searching.
3. DO SOMETHING Now you’ve thrown out all the trash, archived anything that you don’t need to do something about but you still want to hold on to, and you’ve put any email receipts in a receipts folder. All that’s left is a pile of emails that you need to do something about.
Here’s where you need to have your pen and paper handy.
Starting again at the bottom on the inbox (which, hopefully, is not too much scrolling away by this point), open each email and ask this question:
What’s the thing I need to do about this? (In GTD terms, “what’s my next action?”)
If it’s just a little thing that can be done in one minute while you’re still sitting in front of your computer, DO IT NOW. Like, reply to that email, for example. And then, once you’ve done something about it, archive that email.
If the thing you need to do about that email is going to take a while, or you need to think more about it, write down what you think you need to do on that piece of paper, noting what the email is (jot down sender, subject line, and date if it helps), and then archive that email.
That last paragraph is probably the hardest one to do, and the most important. Even though you haven’t done anything about that email, you’re still going to get it out of your inbox. It goes in the archive. If you skip this step, you’ll be overwhelmed by email again in no time.
Once you’ve completed those 3 steps, you should be left with an empty inbox and a piece of paper with some to-do’s on it.
Repeat as necessary.
Once a week is ideal.
Let me know your thoughts on this. Do you have a similar process?