Most of us treat our inbox like our to-do list. It slowly empties out as we get through our tasks, but it never hits zero. Instead of figuring out how to clean it up, we complain about the inadequate search functionality that fails to find the needle in our personal haystack.
There are a few standard pointers that can help anyone looking to reduce their inbox clutter:
- Sally McGhee’s 4Ds - Do It, Delegate It, Delete It or Defer It - are a great rule of thumb. The idea is to take one of these actions for each of the items in your inbox the very first time you see it there.
- The productivity experts at Getting Things Done recommend a version of the 2-minute rule, i.e. if it takes less than two minutes to process or reply to an email, do it right away. Otherwise, put it into a “Defer” folder or a task list.
- And, of course, there’s always the rule about dedicating time to read email 2-3 times a day instead of checking in on it constantly. That helps avoid distractions while working your way through the inbox.
These are all sound pieces of general advice. But there are a few additional things you will need to set up in your inbox to get these efficiencies to work for you. (Thanks to Prialto team captain, Richie Hernandez, for the tips.)
- Change your inbox to view messages by conversations, instead of viewing message-by-message. This consolidates previous and current emails on the same topic in one place. It’s particularly helpful if you don't receive a lot of emails with the same subject line.
- Filter your mail. If you need to keep track of lots of emails from the same person or group, create a folder for them and then filter your mail so that all incoming messages from that person automatically go into to that specific folder. I used to resist this, since it meant I wouldn’t see new emails from people right away. However, it’s great in helping to prioritize emails.
- Prioritizing your folders is also important. In many mailbox applications, adding a number before the name of the folder will bring important folders right to the top of the list.
- Try to create and stick to about 4 to 5 sub-folders for each person or project. Any more than that and they tend to get wasted or duplicative.
- If you need to submit expense reports, create an “Expenses” folder and a subset of folders for each month. Once you have submitted that month and have been reimbursed, you can delete the entire folder in one go.
- Use flags and tags/labels where you can for ongoing projects. The more you have, the better your search function will be!
As with most productivity recommendations, it’s unfortunately the case that setting up these systems will take some time investment on your part. Matt Cutts of Google thinks changing a daily habit takes exactly 30 short days. And even if you use an assistant to do this (which would alleviate the need for you to personally develop the habit, while giving you all the benefits) you would still need to take time to set up the system for that person. But once you make it through the first few days of consciously making an effort at adoption, you’re likely to be happier (and less busy!) from there on out.