How Full is Your Inbox?

The Empty Inbox: It does happen!

Apparently my ability to occasionally clear out my email inbox–personal or professional–is something of a rarity. I honestly don’t understand this, but a friend suggested I share my “secrets” for making this phenomenon occur. Happy to oblige.

Treating Your Inbox as a To-Do List

For better or worse, I see my inbox as a list of things to do rather than “letters” to save or ignore whenever I get to them. I’m also allergic to cluttered computer desktops, so I have  reasonably orderly filing system. Yes, I realize some people might consider that a case of borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but if you saw my physical desktop or my apartment, you’d realize that I do not have anything like that.

Neatness is a survival technique.

I have a lot of data flying at me at any one time. This has been true since I started answering guest letters at Walt Disney World. This might be the case in your life, too. Being occasionally flighty, I realized that having a logically named, orderly filing system might save myself, my bosses, or my coworkers time because I wasn’t trying to dig around my computer to find something.

My emails are the same way. I’m a bit of a pack rat and don’t like to throw away work-related messages. However, I also don’t like coming into work every day and scrolling down for pages and pages to find something. Yuck!

Fair Warning: Other People Don’t Do This

Organization gurus will tell you to answer email only during certain times of the day to prevent it from interfering with other work. That sounds great in theory; however, that means ensuring that you can set aside a block of time multiple times a day to get caught up. My days don’t usually work that way.

Also, I’ve worked in several offices where, if you don’t respond to an email immediately, someone walks over to your cubicle and asks, “Have you read the email I just sent you?”

Most discouraging, I end the day having not engaged in my “email time,” the pile is that much worse the next day, and then I have to find a way to carve out more time at some point to get caught up. And my observation of people who do this is that they never get caught up!

Here’s my process, more or less:

  1. To remain as responsive as I can, I read messages as soon I get them. That does not mean that I do something with them right away. If I’m in the midst of some other task, I usually finish that.
  2. If I do have to answer right away–and usually a warning in the email subject header like TIME SENSITIVE or URGENT will get my attention that way–I will do so, and then file the message into the appropriate topic-based folder.
  3. When my non-message tasks clear out, I review what’s in my inbox and look for anything useful that I can take action on immediately. For example, if I’ve received an answer to a question I have regarding content, I’ll add the content from the email into the appropriate document and, again, file the message once acted upon.
  4. If I’ve sent a message or responded to a message in my inbox and I’m waiting on someone else to reply, the message in the inbox gets filed until someone else takes action.
  5. Items remain in the inbox until I’ve take action on them. Once I’ve taken action, into a folder it goes.

That’s it: read quickly, respond quickly if necessary, file things as they’re used or sent away.

This isn’t to say that it’s all joy and Nirvana in my folder system. At one point I had over 2GB of messages for one organization. Other jobs have strongly suggested that I clear out my email folders because I was wasting hard drive or server space. However, if someone was looking for a message, they knew where to go, so who’s wasting space?

I hope your system works for you. If not, and you’re interested in clearing out your inbox, you might try my approach. May the force be with you.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to How Full is Your Inbox?

  1. My wife thinks I’m weird because I have an empty inbox. Well, that’s not the only reason she thinks I’m weird, but it’s on the list.

  2. My personal inbox is empty, my work inbox is typically 2-3 items. I use David Allen’s “getting things done” system – email inboxes like physical inboxes are collectors of stuff, and once you pick up an item from the collector you don’t put the item back in the collector, you move it to somewhere you can track it (Next Actions, Projects, Waiting For, Reference, Someday Maybe). For personal items this is Evernote, for work items due to sensitive/proprietary information it’s an offline OneNote notebook/

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