Clean your inbox

Once again, I would like to welcome Lauren Halagarda as a guest author on Unclutterer. I hope your enjoy her advice on the e-mail detoxification process.

Are you overwhelmed by the amount of e-mail in your inbox? Do you have difficulty keeping up? Do e-mails get lost in your inbox? Here are some secrets that will help you take control of your inbox and manage your information overload.

First and foremost, you need to change your mindset about the purpose of your inbox. My definition for an inbox is: a location for temporarily holding incoming mail, whether it is paper-based or electronic. The inbox should not be a “forever home” for your incoming mail, rather, it is an intermediate step in an effective e-mail (or paper) management system.

Once you decide to stop using your inbox as a to-do list, database, filing cabinet, tickler file, contact management system and calendar, you can then tackle processing e-mail much more effectively. Here are the questions you need to ask yourself when processing your e-mail.

Does the e-mail contain an action? If not, do you need to retain the information contained within it? (Be generous with your delete key.) Most of the e-mail we receive we never refer to again — experts say the number is close to 80%. If you can find the information in the message elsewhere, delete it. If it contains details you need such as contact info, transfer that information to your address book or contact management system. If it contains event information, transfer it directly to your calendar. If it is resource information or data that will help you get work done in the future, find an appropriate storage location for it. If you do need to retain the e-mail itself, deposit it into storage. (Preferably into ONE reference folder. I labeled mine “processed mail.”) If you use Gmail, use the archive function.

If the e-mail contains an action, can someone else take care of it? Delegate it. Once you delegate an item, you may still need to follow up on it. In that case, add the follow-up item to your task list.

If it is something that you need to do, can you do it in 2 minutes or less? Do it now. But be honest with yourself about how long it will take you to complete, if you are still working on it 20 minutes from now, it doesn’t qualify.

For those items that require action or cannot be delegated or done within 2 minutes, you may need to do it later. Create an item in your task list to identify the very next action required. Make sure you are not creating a task that has pre-requisite actions. For example, if the task is “go to the office and get parking permit.” What do you need to have in order to obtain the permit? The pre-requisite task may be to gather your original registration and copy of insurance.

Obviously, e-mail processing is just one of the components to an effective action management system, but it is a key foundational element in capturing and identifying tasks so you can move them from To-do to DONE!

14 Comments for “Clean your inbox”

  1. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    The delete button is my favorite key…

  2. posted by Andamom on

    If you’re like me, you receive 100+ legitimate emails at work. People do reference and ask me to access any number of these a few hours to a 1 or more after receipt. This is in addition to the project work and action items that I need to handle here. Further, our system is Lotus Notes. Periodically, I find a few minutes (like during an endless conference call) when I can start select mail to delete or archive — but in general, I don’t have the time to go back and sift through it all. Important messages and documents are sent to another location where all team members can access them at a future point.

    As a result, my work inbox is cluttered in a way that I would never accept in my home email or in the rest of my life. Give me an extra hour in my day, and I would use it for other purposes… although I agree in premise with what has been written.

    *Note this message was written during lunch when I could be archiving but chose to eat and read

  3. posted by Tabs at Levnow on

    I am a fan of the delete button too, but I tend to save emails for later then 100 pages with 100 emails each later I have to spend hours cleaning that stuff out. I have a bad habit saving emails, so thanks for the post it is a reminder that I have to clean out all 20 of them. 😀 And delete more oftent


  4. posted by Julie on

    I admit it–I have emails from three or four years ago in my yahoo account. I use them as records of friendships, kind of like a journal. They don’t take up space or anything (it’s all online).

    So for this, I can’t see the reason to declutter.

  5. posted by Sue on

    I try to set up folders and drop the ones I DO need to keep into those; sometimes keeping an email has proven very useful at work. (I had a co-worker who was fond at re-writing history, and the emails came in handy to verify decisions made in meetings.)

    It is also a good idea to clear out your SPAM, JUNK and DELETED folders periodically, if your system doesn’t do that automatically.

  6. posted by Ben on

    I hope this comment isn’t considered clutter:

    These are not Lauren’s ideas. This is Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero. I love Unclutterer and everything I’ve seen so far is completely original and very useful. I’m surprised to see that there isn’t even a reference to Mann’s ideas in the article. Credit where credit’s due, Unclutterer.

    Thanks, and I look forward to your next post!

  7. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Ben — Your comment isn’t clutter … but Lauren wasn’t stealing from Merlin Mann (I doubt she knows who he is). This idea was around long before Merlin wrote about it. The first time I saw someone mention something like it was Julie Morgenstern in 2004. Very few ideas, mine included, are wholly original. You hear something in passing, integrate it into your schema, put your spin on it, and advance the idea a little further. It’s like scientists building on previous findings.

  8. posted by Andy on

    Hi. Great post. Also sounds like an email-specific simplified version of GTD.

    Rather than a single Processing folder, I go one step further and seperate out “Action” and “Review” into two folders. It allows me to seperate out things I need to do from things I need to review so I can take care of different stuff depending on my mood.

    Before that I tried using the Outlook GTD plugin, but it didn’t meet my needs for some reason. Maybe I needed something that didn’t feel like it got in my way…

  9. posted by gypsypacker on

    I access twice a day, at the start of the day and mid-day. I delete anything I can. Ongoing problems have their own files, classes have theirs. Anything else stays for a week at the most. If it isn’t handled in a week, then it qualifies as a problem.

  10. posted by Josie on

    I have to agree with Ben. Credit where credit is due. Even scientists have a strict code of crediting sources of related work and work they are building on.

    I think it’s great to hear everyone’s different spin on old ideas. And this is a great set of ideas that is really relevant to Unclutterer. But the post could have done a better job of crediting related ideas like Morgenstern and Mann.

    This is not meant to be “shame on you”, just “try to do better next time”. We all can do better on this front in the blogesphere. Thanks, and keep the great ideas coming!

  11. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Josie — Had she lifted their ideas, then sure, I’d agree with you. But she didn’t. There is a difference between plagiarism (which this isn’t) and building on others’ ideas or just ideas that exist in the ether.

    For example, in your statement just now, you say that we should “try to do better next time.” You aren’t the first person to utter those words, yet you don’t give credit to the millions of people who have said it before you. Do a Google search, with that exact phrase, and you’ll pull up so many pages of responses that our comment box wouldn’t even let you enter all of the sources if you wanted to.

    No offense to Merlin, but his idea was less than revolutionary seeing as I (and millions of others) was keeping an empty inbox for years before I read his Inbox Zero document. In fact, I’ve been using “Mailbox Zero” for more than 20 years to keep junk mail out of my house. There is nothing unique about his idea except for the name he attached to it. More importantly, the name of Merlin’s site is 43 Folders — a direct reference to Allen’s Getting Things Done system — but it doesn’t explicitly say “I borrowed the name of this website from a concept introduced in David Allen’s book” on the banner of his website. For Lauren to come to a similar conclusion on her own about keeping an inbox free of incoming e-mails is not surprising seeing as she has been a professional organizer working in people’s offices for years before Merlin Mann even read David Allen’s book.

    I have a journalism degree, sat through hours of ethics training, worked for many publications, have a masters degree in English education, and taught classes on plagiarism … NOTHING about Lauren’s post violates any laws, or even walks a close line.

  12. posted by [email protected] Awareness * Connection on

    Mr. Mann borrows things from just about everywhere and credits only some of them. So going after this author, if you’re being consistent, would mean you need to have a talk with Merlin too. And it would continue up the food chain from there since some of the thinkers/writers that Merlin Mann borrows from do the same thing.

    I think bloggers could do a better job of at least dropping names here and there of who influenced our ideas. Not just to credit those who had them, but to leave a breadcrumb trail so that others can find their way around the web of ideas more easily.

    But borrowing and synthesizing ideas without crediting them seems to an increasingly accepted standard practice. I’d prefer ideas were credited more often, but I’m old enough to realize that my preferences don’t have a whole lot to do with how the world actually works.

    Also this Inbox Zero sort of concept has been around in enough forms that it is approaching a kind of public domain status. I did see one blogger over on ThinkSimpleNow flagrantly plagiarize a writer where the ideas were clearly in precisely the same format as the appeared in the author’s book…so there is still some boundary fortunately. This eventually got corrected after the author stumbled across the blog and pointed out the use of his work without credit.

    Anyway, no matter how you slice it these were ideas worth sharing again. Thanks for the post.

  13. posted by Lauren Halagarda on

    @Andamom – I agree and I often need to reference emails frequently but I don’t use my inbox to manage them. If interested, try researching a desktop search engine, compatible with your email system, that allows you to preview and perform actions directly. It has helped me personally, as well as my clients, to find what we need when we need it.

    As with paper, there are emails that are action-related, reference and archive (i.e. cya) and they require separate systems for managing them.

    @Andy – It sounds like you have a system that works for you and I don’t recommend fixing what isn’t broken. Folders do require review and for many, this doesn’t work. I teach my clients to use an electronic task program or a paper-based planning system to manage to-do’s.

  14. posted by CJW on

    I like the “detox” the inbox line. I can use any inbox tips so keep them coming! A tip for you in exchange is Outlook Track-It. It’s a plugin/addon for outlook that lets you flag emails for followups. So, in case you have a bad memory (like me), this will remind you automatically. Google it for the website. I believe a trial download is on it.

Comments are closed.