Five tips for taming the chaos lurking in your inbox

How many messages do you have in your inbox? 100? 1,000? 10,000? When it comes to your inbox, chances are you either keep it clean and clear or you’ve given up and the messages are piling up. I’m guessing you’re the latter if you’re reading this article.

Have you ever thought about how much time you waste trying to find that one message? According to the Harvard Business Reviewfull inboxes waste 27 minutes per day. You may be among those the article identifies as arguing against moving emails out of the inbox due to the ease of search functionality. Search is great, but HBR points out that if you are checking email 15 times per day, spending only 4 seconds looking at each, and re-reading only 10% of the messages, you will essentially be wasting 27 minutes every single day on email alone.

The HBR article goes on to argue against using folders and archiving emails, citing the time wasted on such activities, but this is where I have to DISAGREE. Below are my five tips for keeping your inbox clean and maximizing your time.

1. Create folders for emails you want (need) to keep

Don’t tell me you don’t know how to create a folder either. If you don’t know how to create a folder, GTS (Google That Shit) and you’ll find out how to create a folder in your email program.

My inbox is divided as follows:

— **TO DO** This folder should contain the most pressing items for you to complete and should be emptied every day or every week at the most. If you put things in this folder, they better be important and require your undivided attention.

— A “Personal” folder with subfolders for each family member as well as separate ones for passwords, household information, and taxes. These folders are for those items you may need to refer to, but which do not contain anything which needs to be acted upon. These are information only folders, like a digital filing cabinet.

— Receipts. Put ’em all in here without reading and only look at them if necessary (i.e., something doesn’t arrive in the mail from Amazon and you need proof of purchase). Another digital filing drawer.

— A folder for each group I’m involved with (writing groups, boards, etc.) I only keep emails which contain information I may need in the future and I only keep the emails while the group is active. Once the group has disbanded or my term is over I delete or archive. (That’s coming up next.)

— A folder for work with a subfolder for each of my clients. I keep most emails from my clients while I am working on a project but again, when the job is over, the emails are archived.

Yes, setting up folders will take time, but it’s worth your time!

2. Delete, delete, delete (or archive if you must)

You are never going to have time to read the articles from the myriad of publications you’ve subscribed to. Just as I encouraged in my digital declutter of photos, delete, delete, delete! Don’t even open the email. If you don’t have time to read it right then, you never will. Don’t argue. You won’t.

If you are unconvinced, don’t open the email but move it to the **TO DO** folder. Set a time once a day or once a week to do everything in your **TO DO** folder, including reading everything you want to read. When you’re done doing what you need to do, DELETE. If you don’t get to all the articles you want to read, DELETE. Trust me, there will be hundreds more to sort through next week.

If you’re not quite ready to hit the delete button, at least archive your folders. Not sure how to do that either? GTS!

3. Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe

I know you want to read everything, but you don’t have time. Pick a few publications you want to keep receiving and unsubscribe from all the others. Too many to do all in one go? Every week pick three emails to unsubscribe from. Use the link at the bottom and unsubscribe. You won’t miss it. And if you do, you can always go out and resubscribe. But for now, get rid of everything you can.

4. Clean up after project end

Just as everything needs a deep clean from time to time, your email is no exception.

— When a project ends, delete or archive.
 — When your term is up, delete or archive.
 — If you’ve been neglectful of your **TO DO** folder, get in there and delete or archive.
 — Go into your receipts and delete everything more than 2 months old. Don’t read, just delete.

5. Touch everything only once

This should really be number one, but you need to have infrastructure before you can follow this most important of rules.

My advice is to close your email completely. Close the tab or email program, turn off notifications on your phone and watch. Set a time to check your email on a set schedule, when you’re not right in the middle of something else. The schedule is up to you, but pick a time and pick a duration. Do not leave it open-ended and get swallowed by the email monster.

Look at each email and decide one of three things to do…

— Delete it
 — File in a folder
 — Move to **TO DO**

Once you’re done with the inbox, move on to your **TO DO** folder, complete one task at a time, and DELETE the email when you’re done!

See Also: Digital Declutter – Photos

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